Manchester’s musical history is extensive and impressive. Ranging from the founding of the UK’s oldest professional symphony orchestra (the Hallé – founded in tandem with the UK’s oldest and largest specialist music shop, Forsyth Bros. Ltd.) in 1858, to the inauguration of the UK’s largest specialist music school (Chetham’s School of Music) in 1969, the city has a strong musical culture engraved on its soul. After several years of discussions and tireless effort, the Royal Manchester College of Music and the Northern School of Music finally amalgamated to form the new Royal Northern College of Music in 1972 – only a stone’s throw away from the University of Manchester, which still supports a thriving music department.

Clark Rundell, Director of Contemporary Music and Head of Conducting at the RNCM
Clark Rundell, Director of Contemporary Music and Head of Conducting at the RNCM

Presently occupying the same (but now much altered and extended) purpose-built premises as it did in those early days, a 40th anniversary celebration concert was given by the RNCM Symphony Orchestra – an exact replica of the same celebration concert given in honour of the college’s opening in 1972. Amusingly, the 1972 concert actually took place in the Town Hall, as the new RNCM Concert Hall in which we were seated tonight was unfinished. The programme consisted of the prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Sir Arthur Bliss’ Music for Strings and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 2, “A London Symphony”.

The concert opened with a brief speech by Clark Rundell (Head of Conducting), and commenced musically with the Wagner prelude conducted by Carlos del Cueto. It seemed a fitting choice of maestro to have del Cueto opening the concert, as he is Junior Fellow in Conducting at the RNCM. Del Cueto led the players in a weighty but deafening performance – a curious factor of the RNCM Concert Hall is the proximity of orchestra to audience; in some cases only a matter of a few feet separates the two, making balance awkward and dynamics a minefield. Impassioned and majestic with a ceaseless romantic flow, the orchestra settled into the work quickly and produced some fine playing, though I confess I wish del Cueto had investigated some of the subtler aspects of Wagner’s exposed woodwind passages with greater sensitivity, the whole piece seeming to start forte, continue forte, and end fortissimo.

Following ear-splitting Wagnerian beginnings, a work for strings by one of England’s now neglected but once important composers: Music for Strings by Sir Arthur Bliss (1891–1975). Bliss, one-time director of music at the BBC and Master of the Queen’s Music, once enjoyed regular performances but like many of his generation has now slipped into the twilight of England’s musical heritage. Tonight’s work, complex, difficult and taxing, was handled excellently by the RNCM String Orchestra, which Malcolm Layfield (Head of Strings) conducted with extraordinary zeal. The pages of the score in front of him were rarely glanced at, and Layfield clearly knew the piece inside out, drawing from the players a wonderfully phrased performance of music that deserves wider contemporary acclaim. The fact that the college chose to include this work in 1972 reveals a time when concert programmers included English music as not only a matter of duty to its indigenous composers, but because the music is good enough to sustain audience appreciation.

To conclude the evening, Clark Rundell returned to the podium to conduct Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony no. 2. Vaughan Williams had a strong relationship with Manchester; several of his symphonies received their première with the Hallé under the baton of Sir John Barbirolli, whom Vaughan Williams nicknamed “Glorious John” in the dedication to his Eighth Symphony. Furthermore, Vaughan Williams’ biographer and friend Michael Kennedy was also involved in the opening of the new college, and present that night in 1972, just as he was tonight – thus, a strong Vaughan Williams advocacy is never far away from Manchester’s music scene.

Rundell devised an excellent reading of the score; at once open, spacious, cold, and then bursting at the seams with rhythm and noise, the symphony is an evocative and expert portrait in music of London’s varied moods. The Lento second movement, famous for its bleak cor anglais solo, chilled the room in a London mist that slowly dissipated with the slightly warmer strings, before being eased into a more comfortable zone by the horns. Some later weakness in the strings and brass in tricky passages resulted in slightly off tuning, but this was quickly remedied and the performance was one the college may be proud of.

Over the past 40 years the RNCM has amassed a distinguished list of alumni, heads of department, teaching staff and visiting tutors - many attending tonight. For my own presence I distinctly felt I was witnessing something special – I hope I may be able to write the same again in another forty years.