The Hallé Orchestra opened its new season last week with a moving and magnificent performance at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.
Although the orchestra has played a handful of concerts over the summer, this was the first time it had played to a full, non-socially distanced house in 18 months. For me, it’s been more than 19 months since I last had the pleasure of seeing them perform live.
Before the long-awaited and much-anticipated concert began, the foyers and bars of The Bridgewater Hall were filled with sights and sounds of old friends reuniting. By the time Sir Mark Elder raised his baton, it was clear that this was going to be an emotional evening for all concerned.
The curation of the performance was, as ever, flawless, and as the first exquisite notes from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis rose gently into the air, many in the hall found themselves having to wipe away a tear or two. After such a long absence, the Tallis Fantasia was the perfect selection as an opener.
Williams wrote his one movement work for a string orchestra in the wake of co-editing The English Hymnal in 1906 in which he revived a 16th century psalm tune by Tallis, which for Williams became associated with John Bunyan’s great Christian Allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. How apt for all of us in the audience who had for so long been yearning to re-enact our own musical pilgrimage, that we might once again hear music played live in the company of like-minded souls.
By turns, the piece, so loved by the people of these islands, was contemplative yet passionate. Given all that people have been through in the past two years, its haunting refrains never seemed more poignant.
To follow we went on another journey, this one not so much a pilgrimage as a ride on rollercoaster, in the company of Maurice Ravel and his Piano Concerto in G Major. I have often found Ravel’s work to be gloriously and joyously mad and, no wonder in some ways, drawing as he did on elements of modernism, baroque, neoclassicism and jazz.
As the concerto progressed, the orchestra got to flex its muscles with sudden, delightful dramatic changes in tempo, being outright spritely one minute and downright pensive the next. But it was never dull and when Benjamin Grosvenor took to the piano to give a bravura solo performance in the second movement, we were all reminded just what truly wonderful things one talented, dedicated human being can do with an instrument.
After the interval, we returned to hear a faultless performance of the work of an old friend of the Hallé’s, Jean Sibelius and his Symphony No.2 in D Major.
Sibelius was, and is, a towering figure in Finnish history. The compositions of this prolific, talented and somewhat tortured composer had an enormous impact on his native land at a time when Finland was struggling to gain its independence from Russia, and then struggling even harder to keep it.
His symphonies, works like Finlandia, are rightly seen as emblematic of the nation’s natural and political landscapes, and it is no exaggeration to say that Sibelius played an important role in the formation of Finnish national identity.
Yet his influence was not restricted to his beloved homeland and his works were played all over the world. This influence can be seen in this country in the compositions of Vaughan Williams and William Walton, and his work was championed by the Hallé’s own Sir John Barbirolli.
In the expert hands of Sir Mark and his assembled musicians, the symphony, which Sibelius called his “confession of the soul”, needed no penance dispensed from the audience. Rather, it was followed by thunderous and deeply heartfelt applause. It was Sir Mark and the Hallé Orchestra who taught me to love Sibelius, and it was Sibelius who taught me to love Finland. Such is the power of music.
In truth this was no ordinary concert. In fact, it was nothing less than the resurrection of the musical soul of a city. Such scenes are being enacted across the country as life is finally being breathed back into live music, in concert halls, jazz clubs, pubs and every kind of live music venue imaginable. It was my privilege to see it happen in Manchester, and I’m not ashamed to say that there were tears in my eyes at the sight and sound of it.
In his 1888 book, Twilight of the Idol, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Similarly, in a letter to a fan who was serving in the US Army in Vietnam in 1967, Louis Armstrong wrote that “Music is life itself.” On this night in Manchester, their words have never rung truer.
Main image: Hall+® 150 The Bridgewater Hall, credit Joel Chester Fildes