Last month as soft, warm, summer rain fell on a Saturday evening in Manchester, a packed Bridgewater Hall was able to transcend the meteorological treachery and escape into an English rural idyll. This harmonious miracle was made possible by the city’s Hallé Orchestra and a splendid performance of English classics, part of this year’s Hallé Promenade Concerts.
Jamie Phillips, the Hallé’s youngest ever assistant conductor, took the baton for the evening, leading with a maturity and skill one would scarcely expect from a 22-year-old. But this graduate of Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music already has an impressive C.V., with just one of his achievements the fact that he conducted at last year’s Salzburg festival. Phillips certainly lived up his growing reputation on the night, adroitly leading both orchestra and audience alike through a succession of pieces, some familiar and some getting an altogether rarer orchestral outing.
Many of the great names of English music were included in the programme, which kicked off with a vibrant, energetic piece from Oldham-born William Walton. The Hallé is at its educative best when it includes works like Walton’s Johannesburg Festival Overture and Holst’s Ballet Suite from The Perfect Fool, alongside better known works. And by doing so it not only expands its audience’s cultural frame of reference but also does much to help to safeguard the future of orchestral music in the city.
I took great delight in Malcolm Arnold’s overture from Tam O’Shanter – a tale involving cavorting witches and warlocks no less – and special mention must be made of the boozy bassoons’ performance as the eponymous, drunken Tam; take a bow Gretha Tuls and Ben Hudson. As for the trombones – Katy Jones and Roz Davies – well, their ‘auld Nick was suitably satanic and positively delighted the audience. But in an evening of English classics it was always going to be a handful of deeply familiar and much loved pieces that stole the show, along with the hearts of all those present.
When searching for examples of how music, literature and art evoke national landscapes, both geographical and cerebral, we often reach too readily for German Romanticism, which is hardly surprising when that movement can boast the likes of Heine and Casper David Friedrich. But it is my belief that the works of English composers such as Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn Williams are every bit as evocative of the heart and soul of England as Brahms and Schumann are for Germany, and on nights such as these and in the expert hands of the Hallé, hypothesis hardens into testable theory.
Elgar’s Nimrod speaks directly to heart of this country, and by that I mean both England and the wider family of nations that is Britain. Its innate, melodic beauty transcends all attempts to describe it so here I will simply confine myself to saying that for many it encapsulates that which we would believe is the very soul of our nation. And, in this, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War, it is hard not to hear it without visualising the endless rows of white, marble crosses in corners of foreign fields across the Channel; hard not to recall cold, November mornings at The Cenotaph, breath misting in the air before the ranks of silent, sombre Guardsmen.
Likewise it was hard not to feel, on an elemental level, the tapestry of emotions which anchor millions to this land when listening to the Hallé’s wonderful rendition of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves and The Lark Ascending. And it was in the latter that the evening reached its apotheosis, especially so with a truly virtuoso performance from leader of the Hallé, Lyn Fletcher.
As she played the audience ascended into a kind of collective nirvana, born aloft by the genius of Vaughan Williams and Fletcher’s exquisite, spellbinding performance on the violin. When she and the rest of the Hallé were done we all of us were left beneath a gentle summer sun, alone but ennobled, in some corner of an English field that lives forever in our hearts.
Images by Russell Hart
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