Sonic Geography at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester International Festival

Sonic Geography at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester International Festival

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Posted 2023-07-09 by David Keyworthfollow

Fri 07 Jul 2023

New work always features alongside established classics in the BBC Philharmonic's seasons at Bridgewater Hall. The difference this time, in keeping with the ethos of the Manchester International Festival (MIF), was that the programme was entirely made up of new commissions.

The first half was devoted to John Luther Adams Prophecies of Stone. The opening movement - Solitary Peaks - had a tentative atmosphere. It was as if the orchestra and the piano, played by the soloist Ralph van Raat were warily assessing each other - like predator and prey, where each is not sure which one of those they are.

Sonic Geography, Manchester International Festival at Bridgewater Hall

There were moments when the strings let loose but overall the slowness of their playing was like the attentive patience of someone walking back down icy steps.

The second movement - Among Red Mountains - was much louder, with the brass section more in evidence. It was as if the ice was beginning to noisily crack apart.

Cold Mountain included the most compelling piano work of the evening. It reminded me of Erik Saties' Gymnopédies in its intricacy and the way it felt like a musical tightrope walk - where a wrong note could be stumbled into at any moment.

In the final movement - The Stone People Who Live in the Wind - the strings ratcheted up the tension, with echoes of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho score.

The conductor, Vimbayi Kaziboni, suddenly told the musicians to stop - bows hung above strings, Ralph van Raat's hands hovered above the keys - a frozen moment in time. Then they all relaxed and applause filled the hall, which was about 75% full.

While we queued for our interval drinks, the piano was wheeled off and the orchestra filled the whole stage.

The second half opened with The Land Grows Weary of its Own, by Ailís Ní Ríain. The title is a quote from U2's song A Sort of Homecoming. But the music did not sound weary at all - the strings had an agitation about them and the clang of a gong being struck periodically, had echoes of Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz.

The piece ended with the sound of birdsong fluttering above the stage - it was as if the natural world were making itself heard again, after a storm. The programme notes mentioned that the composer of the work was affected by deafness and was imagining what a bird might sound like as climate change takes hold.

After Ailís Ní Ríain came on to take a bow, the contralto Jess Dandy entered to perform Alissa Firsova's setting of four poems: The Force that through the green fuse drives the flower by Dylan Thomas; To the Evening Star by William Blake; Reawakening - from In Memoriam by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Spell of Creation by Kathleen Raine.

I enjoyed the Dylan Thomas setting the most because of the balance between word and music and the inclusion of the sound of wind chimes as if the weather was responding to Thomas's words.

In the other settings, the music drowned out the verses and I wondered if the poems should have been treated as inspirations for the music, rather than an integral part of it. Jess Dandy held her vocal line right to the end, like a captain steering a ship through a gale-force assault, into the harbour.

What characterised all the compositions, was a discordant energy which demanded attention and propelled the programme forward. There were quieter moments, especially in John Luther Adams' contribution, but the sound was often so cacophonous that it felt like it could have set the fire alarms off.

Even if atonal music is not to your taste, it would have been hard not to admire the dexterous musicianship of the orchestra and the soloists. The BBC Philharmonic approaches hot new talent bubbling up under the surface with as much respect and enthusiasm as they give to the towering mountains of the classical repertoire.

For more information about Sonic Geography and Manchester International Festival (MIF23) see their website

John Luther Adams. Photo: Donald Lee.

For information about BBC Philharmonic see their website

Bridgewater Hall, Lower Mosley Street, Manchester, M2 3WS

Tel: 0161 907 9000

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222312 - 2023-07-06 17:21:14

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