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Manchester music reviews

Manchester Camerata: CIty Life, RNCM

City Life at the RNCM

Part of the RNCM's 'Black on White' Festival

Reviewed by Denis Joe March 2013


Emily Howard                  Carillion (World Premiere)
Heiner Goebbels               Sampler Suite from Surrogate Cities
Heiner Goebbels               Black on White (Film)

Clarke Rundell                  Conductor (Manchester Camerata)


Before the evening programme began we were treated to a work composed and performed by youngsters as part of Manchester Camerata’s outreach work in the community.


Janek Schaefer, turntablist

My immediate reaction would be to see this as a cynical piece of instrumentalism: This being another example of the hoops that artists and art companies have to jump through in order to get funding. And this is no doubt the case. But I do believe that Manchester Camerata, as with many organisations, are well intentioned in the work that they do. The problem with using art as an attempt at solving social problems is that art loses its meaning. It ceases to be something that stimulates us emotionally and intellectually as artists take on a managerial role and apply themselves to curing society’s ills (Dr Tiffany Jenkins has written extensively on this issue. See here).


However, the work that was presented to us turned out to be an intelligently structured piece. Even more surprising was that the youngsters spent just two days in the studio in order to prepare for this concert. The piece was not one that could be called ‘challenging’ but it was impressive enough to have stretched the musicians and singers. Somewhat a potpourri of styles (including the inevitable rap) the work was at once something that would be familiar to those youngsters and yet they managed to create a work that went beyond the mundane. And that is something of a rarity, suggesting that the RNCM take their outreach work seriously.


There would be some value in the outreach work if youngsters were pushed beyond what is familiar to them, instead of offering them a moment in the limelight to present something that they are ‘comfortable’ with. This is not an unrealistic expectation. One need only look to the success of El Sistema that has produced one of the world’s leading youth orchestra, the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra, born out of the vision of José Antonio Abreu, the Venezuelan economist and musician, who began his programme of recruiting youngsters from the slum areas of Venezuela. But as Professor Frank Furedi has pointed out, such an approach requires a long-term vision. Something that has been lacking in Britain for far too long.


The approach of using the arts (or sports, for that matter) as in instrument of problem solving can only result in negativity as the end product is just that: the end. The physical, intellectual and emotional work that has gone in to producing a piece counts for nothing except that a goal has been achieved and a box can be ticked. The work that we experienced may not have been a masterpiece but it does deserve to be heard again. Through performances the performers can develop the work. Through a positive approach that challenges the youngsters to go beyond their assumed capabilities, there is the potential to produce work that can be taken more seriously. But a short-term approach can only reinforce a sense of worthlessness. It was a brave move to showcase the outreach work before this concert and I do think that the applause given to the youngsters was enthusiastic and that the audience recognised the potential that exists.


There is a rich tradition of musical composition in Britain and particularly in the North. So it was a delight to hear a new work from Emily Howard.


Howard, who graduated from the RNCM in 2003, was shortlisted for the British Composer Award 2012 for her composition Mesmerism for Piano and Chamber Orchestra. Carillion is certainly an ambitious work. Working with Sam Salem to create sample sounds from Manchester Town Hall bells, the piece weaves these sounds together with the orchestra. Sound artist Janek Schaefer, who performed as turntablist with the orchestra, reproduced the bell sounds onto vinyl. The result is a breath-taking work in which Schaefer is pitted against the orchestra, as an instrument in a concerto.


This was quite fascinating as the ‘argument’ that is a feature of a concerto was absent. If there was a conflict between Schaefer and the Manchester Camerata it seemed to be for dominance rather than debate. As Howard has said of Carillion:

“The piece can be thought of as a giant autonomous chiming system in which the acoustic ensemble and electronics follow similar instructions but in very different ways, making it a game between humans and machines”. [Emily Howard]


Although electronic music has established itself in the classical canon, and pieces such as Edgard Varèse’s Déserts are rightly seen as serious musical statements, Carillion seems more than just a musique concrete composition. Although electronic compositions, including those, like Carillion, that included acoustic instruments, were interested in the weaving together of the two forms, Howard’s piece does seem to concern itself with notation. Schaefer is allowed some freedom to improvise, but the work, as a whole, is very much controlled.


This was Howard’s first electronic composition and I think that it showed a great deal of assuredness to premiere the work alongside a programme with works of Goebbels. Surrogate Cities, multi-media work, was commissioned by the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie and this evening we got to hear The Suite for Sampler and Orchestra, The work is in ten sections which are named after a Baroque dance movement and Goebbels makes good use of the sampler allowing for sounds that an orchestral instrument cannot replicate.


What is fascinating about this work is the manner in which it contemporises the themes that are associated with Baroque art. We are confronted with city sounds, exaggerated but never overly pretentious. The suite concerns itself with the architecture of cities, and the ornamentation, so indicative of Baroque art, is provided by the sampler. Most are unidentifiable except in the first section in which we hear the voices of Jewish cantors. It is a surprisingly beautiful section from this composer who is noted for his musical assaults.


The work develops slowly, referencing various musical styles along the way, including jazz and a quote from Scarlatti in the second section. Industrial noise or subcultural noises are intended to illustrate the historical growth and awareness of urban structures. The work owes as much to Baroque visual art as it does to music (Baroque music is a fairly modern term. It is a debatable as to what extent Baroque music shares aesthetic principles with the visual and literary arts of the 17th century), and is one of the most accomplished works of this century.


Written for the Ensemble Modern and a tribute to the writer Heiner Müller, Schwarz auf Weiss is both a musical and theatrical composition. The work runs on “democratic” principle: there is no conductor or star player. In the programme notes, Goebbels points to the work as being an alternative to Benjamin Britten’s The Young person’s Guide To The Orchestra, except that in this work there is no ordered system.


The composer requires that the musicians play dice and instruments they would not otherwise be familiar with, such as a string player playing brass. The work is fascinating in that the orchestra become a troupe of actors, with only the bare bones of a script. It is as much to the credit of Ensemble Modern as it is to Goebbels, that the work contains some moments of real beauty, as well as moments of sheer power. But at 70 minutes the film seemed too long and there seemed to be moments when the Ensemble were not sure what to do next, which made much of the work seem obviously contrived. I’m not convinced that the piece works as a film, and in a sense it seems to defeat the object, which is the free movement of musicians. Perhaps it would have had a greater impact if it were a live performance. I hope I might find out in the future.


The Manchester Camerata are an excellent ensemble; a credit to the RNCM for their association, and continuing Manchester’s excellent record of producing world class musicians and composers. They are fortunate to come under the baton of Clarke Rundell who is not only an outstanding and personable conductor, he is also a great raconteur, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary music. This also makes him a talented interviewer who, assured of his subject, manages to elicit insightful responses from the composers.


I was mightily impressed by this concert and would urge anyone with a fleeting interest in contemporary music to get themselves along to experience the Manchester Camerata (details here).

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