The première of Tarik O'Regan’s Celestial Map of the Sky formed the highlight of this special Hallé concert, conducted by Sir Mark Elder, to mark the quincentenary of the Manchester Grammar School. It came between a neatly shaped Academic Festival Overture and an account of Holst’s The Planets which found great depths of power and grace in turn.

Sir Mark Elder © Simon Dodd
Sir Mark Elder
© Simon Dodd

Founded in 1515, Manchester Grammar School remains one of the city’s proudest institutions. Half a millennium is a long time, even by musical standards – Thomas Tallis was a mere ten-year-old boy when the school was founded – and so this celebratory concert promised to be a particular highlight of the season. Tarik O’Regan’s new work for the occasion, commissioned by the school, takes its inspiration from woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and its texts from Walt Whitman, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others. The text was particularly well suited to the atmosphere in looking both forward and backward. References to space and global cities seemed especially relevant in the circumstances. The music was in a large-scale ABAB form, with the vast stillness of space portrayed initially by airy flute, celeste and harp, and then the surging drive of the world’s cities given with bold brassy and percussive interjections.

The colourful orchestration was always well attended to, but the greatest joy was the coming together of the Hallé Youth Choir and MGS Choir, who did a fine job of conveying the text with clarity, precision and wonderful purity of tone. The choral forces’ strength of attack and clear diction made light of the rhythmic complexities of the work. This was a very pleasing première, and even if the reason for its commission is something of a niche, the Celestial Map of the Sky is one of those pieces which certainly deserves to be heard again.

Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite was played with class and subtlety, as well as a stirring intensity of sound in the bigger movements. The textural clarity highlighted a great deal of often-lost detail in Uranus and Jupiter and Mercury, and made Mars as razor-sharp as any military band. Jupiter was as jolly as I have heard it, taken at a dashing tempo and imbued with tremendous character.

The softer soundscape of Venus, Saturn and Neptune made full use of the orchestra’s rich string sound. Venus, in particular, was lusciously smooth-edged and passionate in dialogue between sections. The watery closing minutes of Neptune were as well-sung (and stage managed) as I have heard, with a perfectly executed decrescendo all the way to silence.

The concert opener was a neatly shaped rendition of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. For all its apparent suitability for this most scholarly of concerts, it must be remembered that this is at heart a “Boisterous potpourri of student drinking songs”. Indeed, the bassoon-led Fuchslied reflects an initiation in which senior students would attempt to set fire to their juniors’ hair, before extinguishing them with beer. For all the technical accuracy and beautifully shaped musical sensibilities of this performance, the rowdy subject matter was rarely apparent. It was, nonetheless, done with great style and the necessary sensitivity to minimise risks of it sounding like a patchwork medley of idle tunes. The highlight was seeing the full combined forces of the Hallé Choir Ladies, the Youth Choir and School Choir leap to their feet to join in the exultant account of the Gaudeamus to close the piece. This, perhaps summed up the evening: a joyous outpouring of excitement in looking forward while nodding firmly to tradition.

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