Nicely dovetailing the close of “Echoes of a Mountain Song” – Bridgewater Hall's series exploring the creative influences of the northern landscape – the BBC celebrated Shakespeare on the day marking the 400th anniversary of his death as part of Radio 3's “Sounds of Shakespeare” in association with its flagship orchestra for the north, the BBC Philharmonic. Under the baton of Andrew Gourlay, the orchestra performed five new 8-minute works by Manchester-trained young composers alongside extracts from the ballet score considered as one of the greatest musical representations of Shakespeare, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet.

Andrew Gourlay © Johan Persson
Andrew Gourlay
© Johan Persson
Works were commissioned from Tom Coult, Chiu-yu Chou, Daniel Kidane, Nina Whiteman and Aaron Parker, not only as stand-alone orchestral pieces, but as part of a wider collaborative project to produce five new sonnet-inspired plays in which extracts from tonight's premières feature as incidental music. 

Championing new British music is an integral part of Manchester's musical identity and a tradition long upheld by the BBC Phil and the so-called 'Manchester school' (which in fact is two, equally esteemed, schools of the University and the Royal Northern College) whose track record for producing composing talent continues apace. Graduates of this teaching tradition acknowledge the influence of the city's musical provenance, and not just in terms of its classical heritage. Daniel Kidane envisaged his Sirens as an evocation of Mancunian nightlife: “a relentlessly propulsive ride through the city”, inspired by a place where “one could experience jazz, rock, jungle, r&b and dub all in one night”. The idea of portraying both the euphoric and the gritty arose from Shakespeare's Sonnets 153 and 154, in which both the legacy and the lessons of love are reflected. Grit, certainly, in a score infused with animal energy and visceral drive, but despite the frenetic ride through that myriad landscape of club scene hommages, it was mapped and navigated with meticulous control; the orchestration, characterised by a transparency of instrumental texture, was handled not just with rhythmic wit but also a searing clarity of purpose.

Whilst that same concision, transparency of instrumentation and lack of congestion were traits common to all five pieces, by far the most uncomplicated and tonally straightforward was Aaron Parker's serisu, based on Sonnet 73. Whilst all four movements undergo transformation after their initial sonic stasis, it was the plateaux of sound – the 'suspended animation' atmosphere of the open string textures – which captivated most, as did the patient unfolding of expressive tension, steely control of pace and command of orchestral colour, all bearing testament to the composer's remarkable maturity (born in 1991, Parker is the youngest of the group) and confidence in his craft.

The Tongue by Chiu-Yu Chou, inspired by Sonnet 140, is a turbulent but ultimately resolved, tale of love, in which the composer's virtuosic treatment of the orchestra, featuring such 'extended' techniques as 'air' and 'smacking' sounds from the winds, revealed a powerful musical imagination and gift for narrative structure. The exceptionally imaginative and impassioned string writing was performed with scintillating control, crowned by the high tessitura monologue of the first violin, superbly played by Yuri Torchinsky.

Nina Whiteman's The Map of Days Outworn owes its title to a quotation from Sonnet 68 but draws its influence from several sonnets, exploring their concepts of ruin, decay, beauty and unrequited love and "a sense of erosion through time, a tarnishing or blemishing of colours...". The successful musical realisation of these concepts came out of the composer's ability to sustain tension at the same time as manipulating timbral colours. Unusual and arresting, they were wrought from the orchestra at every turn – weather, sirens and an arresting swarming in the strings among them. In a work which demanded considerable precision of timing, Gourlay's sinuously meticulous hovering over the score seemed particularly intense.

For Sonnet machine, Tom Coult was concerned not just with the rhyming scheme of the sonnet as a structural device but also with the notional conundrum of the sonnet as generated by machine, describing his work as “a creative misunderstanding of sonnet form – as if an early computer had arbitrarily applied their rules to a piece of music.” In conveying that tension between human expression and mechanical processing, Coult puts the orchestra through a succession of virtuoso techniques within a sea of controlled chaos and musical 'red herrings', punctuated by shifts, swerves and whip-crack jolts, with the eventual spinning-out-of-control of the machine playfully defined by the 'unhinged' scordatura string sonorities.

Gourlay and the orchestra continued on top form, delivering a robust performance of extracts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The romantic and familiar territory of the 20th century's greatest ballet score may have provided welcome balance after the bracing challenge of new sounds, but as this programme demonstrated, the currency of Shakespeare as a catalyst for compositional excellence in re-imagining his work is as relevant now as ever.

This concert is broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on April 27th (available on iPlayer for 30 days).

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