The Manchester Camerata’s concerts always include something a little different from most orchestras’ performances. Their ever-jovial music director, Gábor Tákacs-Nagy, is a great communicator and as well as imparting his enthusiasm through the music being played he regularly introduces the works. This is something regular audiences have come to look forward to. This evening he gave brief, illuminating comments on each of the works except for the concerto, before which the soloist introduced himself and the piece.

© Craig Ogden
© Craig Ogden

As another departure from tradition, before the concert began we had a short film about the Camerata’s community work with people suffering from dementia. The concert was billed as “España, Beethoven and the Beatles” but there was nothing by the Beatles on the advertised programme. When it came to the encores we discovered more.

The overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was originally written for a completely different opera but has become associated with his most popular opera. It proved an ideal opener for this joyful programme which opened the Manchester Camerata’s Bridgewater Hall season. From the first notes, the strings created an atmosphere of expectation. This was clearly going to be a special concert. We had an energetic performance with the famous Rossini crescendos delighting the audience. We remained in Spain for the remainder of the first half of the concert, Chabrier’s España given in a version for chamber orchestra by Simon Parkin. Reduced forces, but no lack of Spanish vigour and colour. 

The evening’s concerto was the best known guitar concerto of all, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which has eclipsed all the composer’s other works, perhaps unfortunately: I long to hear a live performance of his Concierto Serenata for harp and orchestra. Many of the audience had come to hear the star guitarist Miloš Karadaglić in what should have been his Manchester debut, but he had had to withdraw because of a muscle strain. No one could have been disappointed, however, in the performance by Craig Ogden, who is well-known to Manchester audiences. He informed the audience that he had given his first professional performance of this concerto with the Manchester Camerata.

Unlike Chabrier, Rodrigo does not require tambourines and castanets to create local colour. Instead he relies on the rhythms of Spanish dance and the quintessential Spanish instrument, the guitar, to evoke the gardens of a Spanish palace filled with southern sunshine. Rodrigo’s orchestration ensures that the guitar is never overwhelmed by the orchestra with the soloist often interacting with a small number of woodwinds and with several solo passages. Even so, the guitar is a quiet instrument and in a hall the size of the Bridgewater this evening’s appropriate amplification of the guitar ensured that Craig Ogden’s creation of the rich variety of timbres possible on the guitar was heard by all. He and the orchestra gave a memorable performance. Following the Rodrigo, Craig Ogden played an arrangement for solo guitar by Toru Takemitsu of the Beatles’ Yesterday.

After the interval, we returned to another piece of joyful summer music, although this time interrupted – albeit briefly – by a passing thunderstorm. We may be used to hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony played by a larger orchestra but the forces of the Camerata gave a first-rate account of the composer’s happiest symphony. The first movement “Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arrival in the Countryside” was taken faster than many performances and the players seemed to revel in the second movement “Scene by the Brook”. The third movement “Merry Gathering of Country Folk” was revelatory; Gábor Takács-Nagy brought out more of the humour of this movement than I have ever heard before, reminding us that Beethoven was successor to Haydn and that this conductor and orchestra are Haydn experts. The cellos, basses and timpani then ushered in a tremendous thunderstorm, and peace was restored in the finale “Shepherd’s Song – Happy, Grateful Feelings after the Storm”, sentiments that came across perfectly. Special mention should be made about the Camerata’s strings, which played with great control, energy and expressiveness as required and were particularly impressive in the quiet passages.

As another innovation ten lucky members of the audience were given the opportunity to sit on stage close to the players during the Beethoven to experience the music in a manner normally available only to orchestral musicians.

We then had as an encore out second version of a Beatles song, a delightful arrangement for strings of Eleanor Rigby. There was one last surprise at the end of the concert:  the whole orchestra lined up at the front of the stage to take a well-deserved bow. All in all a joyful experience.