Friday 7th October, 2011
Having a tendency to tweet reviews of concerts, I posted this 129-character summary immediately after the Manchester University Music Society’s ‘Welcome Concert’ last Saturday:
Great start to the @MUMusicSociety season. Burgess, Bizet and Bernstein were explosive, extravagant and enchanting, respectively.
And that’s really all I need to say; for me this was an ideal programme, particularly for the opening night of the season, a prime example of the wide range of music that the Music Society delivers.
More important, though, is that the players were able to do justice to this fantastic but difficult repertoire, from the exuberance of Burgess’s The Glasgow Overture to the haunting second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.
I know for a fact that there’s plenty more where that came from; bring on the rest of the 2011-12 MUMS season.
Monday 19th September, 2011
I went on tour with the Manchester University Symphony Orchestra back in July. Seb asked me to write a piece about it for the Music Department’s website, and I thought I’d stick it on here since I didn’t write anything at the time.
Nothing stirs up excitement amongst a group of musicians quite like the prospect of a tour. From orchestras to brass bands to pop acts – amateur or pro – no one can resist this sublime combination of road trip, concert series, holiday and party. And so it was no surprise that the mood around the Martin Harris Centre was nearing fever pitch as soon as our exams were over, such was the anticipation for the Manchester University Symphony Orchestra’s European tour in July.
The chosen settings for our concerts (following a warm-up rendition of Mahler 5 in Manchester for the Not Part Of Festival) were Heidelberg and Prague. Heidelberg’s picturesque Rhine-side cobbled streets, student-friendly since before it was cool to be student-friendly, were a wonderful contrast to the touristic grandeur of the Czech capital. The latter’s magnificent Municipal House not only looked incredible but also enhanced the already beautiful sound of the orchestra.
One of the biggest highlights of the trip was, unusually, part of our marketing strategy – flashmobs. We would gather in the cities’ main squares, set up instruments, blast through Jupiter while some of us frenziedly distributed flyers, then pack up and move on. Not only was this great fun, but it also made a significant difference to our audience numbers, with many of the faces we saw in the evening recognisable from those we’d seen in the afternoon.
Elated, emotional, exhausted, we returned home to unload the instruments, go our separate ways, and get on with our well-earned summer holidays.
Thursday 25th August, 2011
Nearly three months and no blogging. It’s been good to have that break, but September is drawing ever nearer, my big summer plans have all been fulfilled, and it’s time to take stock of what all that was about. Looking back at these last few months, it seems to me that there’s one very clear recurring theme: balance.
Probably the most significant moment this summer was my great grandad’s death at the end of July. More important than the death itself, though, was that it happened the night before we were due to celebrate his 90th birthday. That coincidence meant that all four generations of his family were able to gather from three countries in two continents and see him one last time. That day, and the weekend after when we gathered for the funeral, demonstrated to me more clearly than ever the strong family values that my great grandparents have been able to instil in their descendants. The funeral service itself didn’t feel sad; the atmosphere was one of optimism, celebration, and often humour. A lot of hope and happiness came out of what on the surface was a bad situation.
A huge chunk of my summer has been spent volunteering at arts festivals. 374 hours and 45 minutes, to be precise. I’ve been an extra in a live and immersive Doctor Who episode at Manchester International Festival; I’ve managed a sometimes hectic Manchester Jazz Festival box office; I’ve helped the Gruffalo onto stage for his dance off with Elmer at the second annual Just So Festival, and I’ve done a whole lot more. The decision to do all that hard work while my bank balance gradually dropped will seem foolish to some – myself included during some of my less exciting volunteering episodes – but if it’s made me more employable then it was the right decision. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve been appreciated, trusted and helped by the people I’ve worked for; I’ve worked long hours, but I’ve had a lot of fun; I’ve worked for no money, but I feel significantly more prepared for a proper job than I was three months ago.
When Manchester, like other UK cities, was hit by riots on the night of 9th August, I felt disappointed. I was annoyed at myself, even, thinking I was naive to have had so much faith in Manchester and to have given so much of my time to two of its biggest festivals. I wasn’t naive, though, because the subsequent wave of defiant, proud hope completely trumped the disappointment I had felt. The crowds of volunteers clearing up the streets the next morning; the ‘We Love MCR’ campaign that has culminated in today’s celebrations – these events are proof of what Manchester really is, really means, is really capable of.
I can identify that same sense of balance in each of these areas – my family, my career (-to-be), and the way I relate to this city – and I think there’s something in that. In our roles as relatives, employees, students and citizens, it’s a valuable thing to a) be able to see the good in the bad and b) to see potential for good and play our part in making it happen. It seems a bit lofty to claim that this summer has changed my life, but I really do feel enlightened to some degree. Balance is good.
Wednesday 8th June, 2011
I was asked to review today’s concerts, sooo…I did. I’m that kind of guy.
Lunchtime Concert: University of Manchester Chamber Orchestra
Despite a shaky start that didn’t quite achieve the intense drama of Mozart’s opening, the orchestra redeemed themselves with the Haffner Serenade’s Andante and Allegro assai, making for a very convincing and elegant performance overall. Special credit is due to Amy Heggart for her charming violin solo in the Andante, and to conductor Thomas Jarvis for reining in this piece’s very tricky corners.
Though deceptively difficult to play, Beethoven’s 1st Symphony was brilliantly delivered. The orchestra demonstrated that sound quality necessary for proper classical playing; a kind of glistening poise that is best defined by my old cello teacher’s word ‘zing‘. The wind section, though made up almost entirely of first-year students, was oozing with skill and musicality. Emma Fry led with enthusiasm and vibrancy, and Jamie Phillips’s conducting was a perfect mix of flair and clarity: one recurring flamboyant gesture can only be described as ‘jazz hands’, but seemed to fit the context perfectly, and the players certainly responded to it.
Beat the Rush Hour Concert: The Joy of Voice
A wonderfully varied exploration of different vocal music genres, this concert opened with Stravinsky’s harmonically unusual but beautifully expressive Mass. The medium-sized choir – formed specially for the occasion – injected the music and text with energy and fluidity, and were very ably led by Ben McKee and Timothy Langston.
With Les Chansons de Bilitis, final-year student Emily McDouall drew us into a much more intimate world, bringing honesty and drama to this sensual cycle. Her mesmerising voice was delicate and yet filled the hall, powerful without being overpowering.
Finally, the University of Manchester Barbershop Chorus changed the mood entirely. With an upbeat approach and careful attention to rich harmonic detail, they seemed to win the audience over without effort, partly thanks to Antoine Kaiserman’s energetic and engaging direction. They opened with traditional barbershop fare, and closed with an ambitiously bizarre though refreshingly hilarious encore: following an outburst of ‘Ah tick tock, ya don’t stop’ from an apparently ordinary concert-goer, a rousing a capella rendition of Color Me Badd’s I Wanna Sex You Up gradually unfolded.
Ad Solem – The University of Manchester Chamber Choir
A quality performance as ever from Manchester’s answer to the BBC Singers. The tone of the ensemble was rich, clear and nicely blended, while this evening’s various soloists all rose above the texture with style and grace. The three guest basses were inevitably necessary in a Russian-themed programme – Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, for example, features a few too many bottom B-flats for even the best student singers – and they added a magnificent new dimension to the choir, allowing for a luxurious overall sound.
Ben McKee, at the helm for the second time today, showed a real understanding of the music; he clearly knew exactly where he wanted to take it, and the choir obviously trusted him. Tonight’s concert, though Ben’s last, also marked the debut of David Young as director. His leadership, previewed in Edward Bairstow’s Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, was extremely promising and made it clear that Ad Solem are set to achieve exciting things in their 2011-12 season.
Thursday 2nd June, 2011
I met Cathy, Manchester International Festival‘s Marketing Director, earlier today to discuss the possibility of my helping her team out over the next few weeks. I left their King Street office with the seemingly Herculean task of promoting MIF amongst this city’s student population. Why Herculean? Because so few students have heard of the festival!
Armed with a zealous desire to preach the good news to the culturally poor of Manchester’s universities, and a good chunk of free time (my newfound courseworklessness affords me such luxuries) I sat down on a bench in front of Central Library and wrote the following article for submission to the Mancunion…only to discover that the student newspaper closed up shop a while ago for exams and summer. So I thought it would be best to blogify it rather than deprive the world of my message! Here goes…
A biennial celebration of art and culture that invades and pervades Manchester for two and a half weeks, costing several million pounds while bringing several more million into the local economy, and attracting over 200,000 people to over 20 events in over 14 venues around the city, could surely not have slipped through your radar. But have you heard of Manchester International Festival? If not, you’re far from alone.
Back for the third time this year, MIF 2011 will be even bigger and better than ever before. At least, that’s the impression I’m getting; I can’t comment on this with any real authority because I didn’t know the festival existed until a couple of months ago! But it’s absolutely huge, the colossal cultural elephant in the metropolitan room that is Manchester. This year it’s enlisting the talent of huge names like Björk, Snoop Dogg, Damon Albarn, Victoria Wood and even The Doctor. But despite its global reputation as the greatest festival that focuses on commissioning new work – be it visual art, music, theatre and/or dance – something is hampering students’ awareness of this groundbreaking sensation.
Perhaps it’s the very fact that, as a biennial festival, someone on a three-year degree course can only come across it a maximum of twice between freshers’ week and graduation. More likely, it’s that most students are at home while MIF is happening (this year it’s 30th June – 17th July). I wouldn’t dream of missing the action, though, even if it means spending a little less time at home this summer. As soon as I heard about it, I signed up to join the 400-strong team of volunteers that play a huge part in making the festival happen. Why is it that we students are so keen to spend three months at home, perhaps venturing out to a holiday destination but missing out on the amazing things that are going on in our university cities? After all, our relationship with these places is often not that close while we’re studying; why not make more of an effort when we’re free?
I think the bottom line here is that Manchester students miss out on great things like MIF because we just don’t get out enough! Alright, we get out enough to know where to get the most intoxicated for the least outlay; we might even be relatively familiar with the music scene; but how well do we really know Manchester? This whole rant is very hypocritical, I confess; I’ve still got a great deal to learn about this unconventionally beautiful city. But that’s the aim of the dissertation I’m about to start writing; I want to investigate whether Manchester has the cultural calibre to compete with the New Yorks and Viennas of this world. In other words, I’m hoping to prove why Manchester truly is international.
Wednesday 18th May, 2011
Manchester-based company PZ Cussons cannot stop giving me free shower gel, it seems. I came out of a Hallé concert a few months ago and was handed a free bottle of Imperial Leather shower gel, produced by Cussons, their new sponsor. I picked up a free copy of the MEN in April and was handed a free bottle of Sanex shower gel. (Guess who makes it…?) And tonight I got another bottle of Imperial Leather. And a bottle of Morning Fresh fabric conditioner. And a Carex soap dispenser. That’s right, the company that rules your bathroom is now ruling my life.
PREAMBLE OVER. The reason I keep being given soap by these people is that PZ Cussons, a Mancunian business through-and-through since its foundation in 1879, is zealously and sincerely keen to be an important part of Manchester’s community and culture. And more specifically, the reason I got a bag full of their products tonight is that I attended a launch event for Manchester International Festival volunteers. The aim of it was to get us all excited about the biennial festival, which takes place from 30th June to 17th July this year. And it worked because I’m now even more excited than I was before! I had a great time – lots of lovely people, lots of lovely food, and lots (and I mean lots) of lovely wine. Plus lots of surprisingly lovely speeches from various important people.
One of these people was Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council. He said that while a lot of people talk about modern cities becoming more and more similar – the term he used was ‘homogenised’ – if MIF demonstrates anything, it demonstrates that ‘Manchester is different’. I can’t wait to be part of this amazing event – after tonight, summer feels one step closer…
Monday 16th May, 2011
When the rain falls
They talk of Manchester
But when the triumphant rain falls
We think of rainbows
That’s the Mancunian Way
My last essay of the year is done, my last composition of the year is hot on its heels, and my Arts Admin exam – well, let’s brush thoughts of that under the carpet for now. My point, anyway, is that summer is not far away, despite this deceptively dreary Manchester weather.
It’s starting already, in a way. I’d signed up to volunteer at Manchester Jazz Festival this July, but on Thursday, thanks to a series of coincidences (long story) I found myself getting involved earlier than anticipated, helping out at a glamorous event for potential corporate sponsors. It was a good laugh and I learnt a lot about arts organisations and their reliance not only businesses but also on board members. Plus, I’m slightly ashamed to say, it filled me with an enormous sense of self-importance: among those present were an MP, an MEP and John Helliwell, although I wasn’t informed until after I’d finished chatting to him that he was the saxophonist with Supertramp. As Mum pointed out though, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t know who he was.
Enough of that – bring on the summer!
Friday 29th April, 2011
Today was a special day: my first real experience of work in an arts administration office. The office in question was that of the Manchester Camerata, and the work in question was, to give it its proper term, envelope stuffing. Take my word for it, it’s a beautiful thing – the smell of freshly-printed flyers; the taste of envelope glue; the thrill I got every time I wasn’t quite sure whether I’d remembered to put the flyer in with the letter but I’d already sealed the tab…
Alright, it wasn’t quite that amazing. In fact, after the first 50 or so envelopes I realised they were the ones you don’t need to lick. Oh, and the only payment was a (very nice!) cup of tea. But I didn’t sign up for this expecting to have fun, or to gain anything out of it in the short term. Instead, my aim was to shift myself a tiny step closer to employment in the Arts, and I think I achieved that in a small way. There wasn’t as much opportunity to network as I would have liked, given that I was tucked away on my own in one corner of the office, but I enjoyed witnessing the day-to-day goings-on of this kind of office, as a fly on the wall.
Plus it was a useful insight into the various inventive methods that such small organisations as this use to publicise their concerts. In this case, in the run-up to a concert of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they’re sending letters and flyers to a long list of people who recently attended Shakespeare plays at The Lowry, and who presumably consented (at some point during the booking process) to their being sent publicity. It’s a great example of the way Manchester’s arts organisations collaborate, sharing their limited resources in order to keep each other in business. All of them, from Cornerhouse to The Hallé, are linked by an unofficial network of arts administrators, the artistic mafia of the city. Now that is exciting.
Tuesday 19th April, 2011
I’m finally back in Hull after quite an intense 6-day round trip. With the Latitude concert out of the way, I headed down to Headline Studios in Stockport for a quick recording session with my band, Always Awake.
These guys are amazing: not only are they wholeheartedly committed to what they do, but each of them looks out for the rest of us, which makes for a tight group that works very hard but never too hard.
Now, a quick bio. Twins Zeb and Theo Bowyer have been writing and performing with Ben Wood for 9 years, but the band has existed in its current state – with Kelani Koyejo on drums and percussion, and me on bass and cello – since December. Our sound is a tricky one to describe, but our Facebook page calls it ‘Inventive, emotive and anthemic – a perfect blend of smooth sophistication and Mancunian grit’, so let’s go with that.
The reason for recording this EP in such a short space of time is that we need something to play to potential audience members for our first ever gig together, on Thursday 5th May. It has to be something that isn’t heavily produced but that at least beats scratch recordings on mobile phones, and is a good representation of our live sound.
So we recorded all the instruments at once, as opposed to the slower, cleaner method of recording every layer separately, from the drums up. This not only saves time, but will hopefully capture something of the raw energy of live performance. The vocals will be done over the next few days, then the guys will work their computery magic and that’ll be it – four shiny new tracks!
Having never recorded with a band before, what struck me most was how intensive it was –how nerve-wracking it was to know that the way I played in those few hours was going to be permanent, either forever to my credit or forever held against me. But despite my nerves, everything went miraculously smoothly, mostly thanks to the expertise of engineers Ryan Searle and John Wood. I’m very much looking forward to hearing the finished product – keep your eyes/ears peeled…
Tuesday 12th April, 2011
Now, I promised some more information about the concert my housemate Dave and I are organising in Glasgow this Saturday. Wow, ‘this Saturday’ seems a lot sooner than ’16th April’ has been sounding for the past few months – that’s scaring me a little…
Why Glasgow? Because it’s Dave’s home town and he already had his heart set on St Mary’s as the venue before I got involved. But it’s not ideal, it really isn’t. It’s great experience, don’t get me wrong – but an awful lot of hassle!
Since Dave’s in Manchester most of the time, and since I’ve never even been to Glasgow before, communication can be a real issue – I’ve had to invent faces for the senders of so many emails that it’s going to get very confusing when I actually meet these people. We’ve got an incredibly dedicated team of helpers up there (particularly Dave’s mother Kathy, her friend Helen, Siobhan from the Teenage Cancer Trust and Zoe from the RSAMD) but it’s so tricky to keep everyone in the loop when we never actually see any of them! (The odd transnational Skype session with Kathy and Helen excepted.)
And of course there’s the players – what we’ve effectively done here is set up a brand new orchestra from scratch. That means finding people in one of two categories:
- England-based players who are willing to organise and pay for their own transport, and crash with other players in Glasgow who they may or may not have met before.
- Scotland-based players, of whom Dave knows surprisingly few and I know two. Literally two people. And one of those has damaged his shoulder and can’t play.
So you see, it’s not a walk in the park. A Manchester concert wouldn’t be easy either, but we’re so much better connected there that organising the players and the venue would be so much more straightforward. Nevertheless, none of these issues is going to come in the way of this Saturday being fantastic! Although it’s difficult, we’ve worked hard and we’re genuinely confident of a successful evening, and one that raises significant funds and awareness for the fantastic work of the Trust. The really encouraging thing is that right now it feels like if we can pull this off, then maybe we can do anything…! Okay, perhaps not anything, but at least we can be confident the Latitude Symphony Orchestra is capable of future concerts closer to (my) home, no problem.