Autumn is upon us and with it the annual signifiers of the change of seasons: the days shorten, the trees take on their first hint of gold and in Manchester the city’s great orchestras begin their new programmes. And if last Saturday’s splendid opening concert is anything to go by then the new season promises to hold more than just a touch of gold for Manchester Camerata.
Spain was the theme for the evening and the orchestra set out its stall from the start with the overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. This much-loved favourite opened up the audience’s musical pores and, from the opening bars, the orchestra displayed its characteristic flair, allowing this familiar piece to seem, in some ways at least, like a new composition. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given the orchestra was led by the charismatic Gábor Takács-Nagy, now entering his fifth season as music director with the Camerata.
When the orchestra moved on to Emmanuel Chabrier’s short orchestral rhapsody España, that initial flair ignited into full-blown flamboyance as Takács-Nagyc conducted his musicians with a gregarious, animated confidence which saw the percussion section shake their maracas with a joyful enthusiasm that would have put Bez to shame.
España is an unusual orchestral choice these days and the product of an unusual composer. As far as composition goes, Emmanuel Chabrier was an autodidact who, although deeply inspired by Wagner, was determined to write music that was wholly French in character; a fact which seems to make this work, written while on an extended holiday in Spain, all the more notable.
I can’t help but think that the sheer exuberance of the piece must owe at least something to the fact that, when he wrote it, Chabrier had only recently liberated himself from an 18-year stint as a lawyer in the Interior Ministry in Paris.
The Iberian theme continued with Concierto de Aranjuez – Joaquín Rodrigo’s towering contribution to Spanish culture which he composed in 1939 in Paris. Like many great compositions, Concierto de Aranjuez evokes a love of a time and place wholly of the composer’s choosing, in this case Rodrigo’s treasured memory of the honeymoon he and his wife Victoria spent at the at Palacio Real de Aranjuez – the Spring resort palace and gardens built by Philip II in the latter half of the 16th century.
Within his orchestration Rodrigo sought to produce “the fragrance of magnolias, the singing of birds, and the gushing of fountains” – all of which were in abundance at the palace. His undoubted success is made all the more remarkable by the fact he’d been almost completely blind since the age of three.
There is great ambiguity within this concerto – the second movement in particular is subject to a melancholic shift in tone and melody. Many myths have arisen about that second movement with some claiming it was inspired by the bombing of Guernica in 1937. In her autobiography, Rodrigo’s wife revealed that the piece was not only an evocation of the happiness of their honeymoon but also a response to her husband’s devastation at the miscarriage of their first child.
And yet, even with this heart-breaking piece of the puzzle revealed, there is still something more to the Concierto de Aranjuez, something ancient and elemental. There is, I believe, encoded deep within the score a line that stretches back through Spanish history, back through an older Rodrigo to Hispania and beyond. But of course it is characteristic of all great art to provide us with a clear reflection of a stated thing while simultaneously preparing a space in which we’ll see what we want to see.
What wasn’t up for interpretation on the night was the performance of Australian-born guitar soloist Craig Ogden who stepped in at short notice to replace Miloš Karadaglic who’d been forced to pull out due to injury. Ogden, who in 2004 he became the youngest instrumentalist to receive a Fellowship Award from the Royal Northern College of Music, put in a virtuoso performance that dovetailed perfectly with a powerful yet sympathetic and accomplished performance from the orchestra.
Ogden, now principal lecturer in guitar at the RNCM, combined superb technical skill with a passion and soul that left the audience thundering their approval. Afterwards he even found time to treat us to an exquisite performance of the Beatles’ classic Yesterday.
And so to Beethoven and the Pastoral Symphony. There can be little original left to say about the great man’s sixth symphony. Simply put, Beethoven was the greatest composer who ever lived and his Pastoral Symphony is a magnificent work of power and beauty that will captivate audiences for as long as humanity chooses to remain human.
In his address to the audience, Takács-Nagy expounded the theory that the Pastoral Symphony was Beethoven’s hymn to nature, a lonely man’s expression of his enduing love for the natural world, which Takács-Nagy believes Beethoven saw as the only love that would never let him down.
This put me in mind of my own first contact with the Pastoral Symphony. It wasn’t in a concert hall or over the radio, or even via a recording. It was part of a Hollywood film I saw on television as a young boy. The film in question was the 1973 dystopian science fiction classic Soylent Green in which the natural world has been all but destroyed by the effects of pollution and horrific overpopulation.
In one particularly moving scene the character Sol Roth, played by Edward G Robinson, goes to a government euthanasia clinic in order to end to end his long life. At the clinic those who chose to end their lives are dispatched painlessly before a 180 degree screen upon which are projected film images of the world as it once was, accompanied by the music of their choice, which in Roth’s case is the Pastoral Symphony.
Thus a wide-eyed Roth is, for one last time, treated to crystal clear images of nature in all its stunning glory, images he has not seen since he was a boy and which are now forbidden to all but the dying; and all to the sound of Beethoven’s great hymn to nature. The scene is even more moving given that Robinson knew he was dying of cancer and this was the last day of his 60-year acting career. He died 12 days later.
On the night I went to The Bridgewater Hall, the Camerata’s splendid performance evoked all the pathos and wonder of Beethoven’s great love affair with nature. But conductor and orchestra weren’t finished with us yet. Takács-Nagy assured the hall that if Beethoven were alive today then his favourite Beatles’ song would surely be Eleanor Rigby. After the Camerata had finished its delightful performance of Paul McCartney’s timeless classic, I don’t imagine there was anyone in the audience who doubted that fact.
Main image: Manchester Camerata and Gábor Takács-Nagy by credit Jonathan Keenan.
Manchester Camerata played:
- Chabrier – España (arr. Simon Parkin)
- Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez
- Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F major, op.68, ‘Pastoral’