Jimi Hendrix, said to have been inspired by Handel's music, afforded a touch of rockstar kudos to the recent launch of “Handel and Hendrix in London”, a merging of two museums where the public can view the guitarist's 60s attic pad adjoining Handel's Mayfair residence. Such tantalising juxtaposition of musical worlds and genres, where icons of both classical and rock rub metaphorical shoulders, has become increasingly promoted in our concert halls. Manchester Camerata's audacious season opener at the Royal Northern College of Music, “From Haydn to Hendrix”, went one further in a programme of six pieces revealing composers who were icons of their genre, and each creators of new musical precedents.

Manchester Camerata and Gábor Takács-Nagy © Manchester Camerata
Manchester Camerata and Gábor Takács-Nagy
© Manchester Camerata

Dubbed “probably Britain's most adventurous orchestra”, the Manchester Camerata is nothing if not versatile. Its long-standing municipal spirit now combines with an edgier profile – a “restless ambition to redefine what an orchestra can do” – and it finds itself in the front running of a new wave of anarchic and risk-taking initiatives in a bid to connect with new audiences. Bringing together the 'bad boys of music' where Haydn and Mozart are billed as the 'rock stars of their age' is a tactical move, but one which epitomises the Camerata's spirit of enterprise and burgeoning eclecticism.

The orchestra's dynamic, genial conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy set the tone of musical camaraderie with his invitation to kick back and enjoy the party, and the concert opened with Daniel Schnyder's arrangement of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil. This exciting and virtuosic strings-only version of the blues anthem with a samba groove lost none of the original's dark power in a performance which proved that you don't need drums, bass guitar or amps to play rock.

Written little over twenty years before the Stones' work, Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto sounded almost disarmingly innocent in its wake. Its expressive modality, sublime evocation of pastoral idyll and the elfin-like, storytelling character of the oboe melodies was distinguished by the astonishing playing of soloist Rachael Clegg, whose buoyant yet effortless eloquence almost completely belied the formidable challenges of the solo part: truly a performance worthy of the pantheon of outstanding renditions of the piece.

Vaughan Williams' friend and fellow revivalist Gustav Holst could be said to have pioneered the formal integration of folksong into education, yet although his St Paul's Suite for strings was composed for the limited resources of school pupils, one imagines the virtuosic passages in the final Dargason and the different rhythmic schemes of two tunes played simultaneously would not have been so practical. A staple of the professional circuit, the music lends itself to breakneck tempi and gestural swagger, especially when performed, as on this occasion, in a standing formation. The ensuing trend for over-excessive movement – notably amongst the upper string players – can be disconcerting. The Camerata is no exception with some relentless swaying, lurching and head jerking. 

Haydn's Cello Concerto in C major re-kindled the party mood for the concert's second half, with the composer's characteristic ebullience and geniality matched by soloist Hannah Roberts' infectious delight in projecting it. Phrasing was clean, rhythmic accents immaculately judged and the strings accompanied with precision and an energy which positively sizzled in the finale. The use of Hendrix elements to vamp up the cadenzas (written by Simon Parkin), with a rock cello persona morphing in and out of Haydn, came across as a somewhat more effective stunt than the 'clever' (more inside joke than spirit of fun) exercise of harmonic red herrings in the third movement.

Scored as for the Haydn, except for two cor anglais “to sound like funky ducks”, Simon Parkin's Purple Haze Variations after Jimi Hendrix was partly written in celebration of the Camerata's new direction and ethos, “to play outside the box” as he put it. Unlike the earlier Rolling Stones arrangement, however, the essence of the original was too much obscured, no doubt confounding those drawn to the concert on the strength of its billing, but the musical links persisted. Just as Hendrix had infused the Haydn cadenzas, so too was Haydn (though rather harder to spot) mixed into the Hendrix.

Haydn again provided the link for the final work of the concert. The “father of the symphony”, he is credited with influencing the maturing style of Mozart's Symphony no. 29 in A major, a work in which we hear the 18-year old Mozart revealing a compositional voice unlike any other which had come before it. Disproportionate bodily gestures from the strings notwithstanding, the performing exemplified the symphony's light and shade and perfectly captured the quintessential Mozartian balance of poise and vigour, concluding a programme which re-affirmed the Camerata as a world class band, and succeeding, in the main, in its quest to blur the lines between genres. 

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