This afternoon saw the Manchester University Music Society (MUMS for short) present its opening concert for the New Year and the new season with a tradition of allowing the Freshers to all perform together and welcome them into the fold of the university.
The concert was a long and ambitious one even by professional standards, and so to ask this of students was no easy task. However they took the bit by their teeth, picked up the gauntlet and ran with the wind and produced a concert of extreme quality and professionalism, and proved once again that we really are blest here in Manchester, having so much talent and craftsmanship at our fingertips. A wealth of institutions both big and small offering students tuition in all forms of performance art, one could easily get quite blasé about it all; but MUMS have consistently provided quality musicianship in a wide range of musical styles and I have enjoyed every visit.
For this visit, the spotlight was on 20th century and contemporary compositions, and 2 of them rather large and substantial pieces.
To begin with, we heard the most modern of all four pieces. Written in 2012, and calling for a rather bizarre chamber grouping of instruments, it was Steve Reich's 'Radio Rewrite'. Quite a fitting choice to open the concert with since tomorrow will be Reich's 80th birthday. However, I have to admit to being no fan of his music, and so, no matter how well they played it (and it was played very well indeed ) I shall move swiftly on to the next item on the concert.
The first of two substantial and important works in the 20th century catalogue. This was Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite of 1919. Stravinsky loved the ballet, and was fascinated by both its power and its beauty, writing many significant works for the medium. This orchestral suite of his ballet music for The Firebird is perhaps not quite as well known as his Rite Of Spring, but is no less a stunning piece of writing and although Romantic in approach, the work quite clearly belongs to the contemporary compositional era. The work is in seven movements although they are played through without break; however today, because this is the Welcome Concert and MUMS are welcoming not only new musicians but also new conductors, these movements were split between 6 young student conductors, three of which were conducting for the first time. It made for a rather interesting 'experiment', as the orchestra not only visually but also musically responded differently to each conductor and so we heard the Firebird Suite as we have never heard it before. I actually enjoyed watching their different styles and approaches to the music and the musicians, and it also makes one realise (as if you didn't already know), just how important the conductor is and what influence he has on the overall texture, timbre, volume, and feel of the music. The student conductors were Holly Redshaw, James Heathcote, Matthew Quin, Nicola Warner. Robert Wallington, and Will Padfield.
After another short interval and stage reconfiguration, the spotlight was turned on the Freshers' Choir; and before the orchestra joined them for the final piece of the concert they sang Charles Ives' Psalm 150 for a cappella mixed choir. If I am to have understood correctly, then this choir was the full compliment of this year's student intake, whether they are studying singing or not. And if this was the case, all I can say is, WOW! It blew the socks off many choirs who ARE studying singing. It was a little rough around the edges, but I am not here to nit-pick; under the confident and energetic direction of ex-student Elspeth Slorach, this was beautifully and intelligently sung and interpreted, as was the following piece, the finale of the concert, Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms.
Truly Bernstein must rank as the world's greatest cross-over composer, flirting with both classical and popular music styles and winning world acclaim in both; as well as being a world class conductor and lecturer too. The Chichester Psalms. Written in 1964, represent the epitome of this cross-over. Some of the music he wrote and then discarded for perhaps his greatest popular work ever, West Side Story, were reworked and added to this piece of classical religious music. The Freshers' Choir, and MUMS Symphony Orchestra, lead by Elspeth Slorach, gave a stunning and truly wonderful rendition of this lesser-known work of Bernstein. I have only ever heard it once before, and the soloist that time was a young boy treble. Here the soloist was a third year student, soprano Chloe Jackson, and her rounded mellifluous voice perfectly suited the music and text.
The scoring also calls for a few solo lines from within the choir itself, and these were provided by Sarah Young, Hugh Beckwith and Joe Chesterman-March.
The concert was a little long, and possibly felt longer than it was due to the two intervals, but once again, MUMS has proved that they really are a force to be reckoned with within the Manchester and even national student stage, consistently providing quality and passion to the wonderful world of music.
Reviewer: Mark Dee
Reviewed: 2nd October 2016