Here is Simon Armitage, literally leaning against his own poem “The Event Horizon”, the words of which are stamped into a steel plate in the venue Hallé St Peter’s in Ancoats, Manchester. His verse pinpoints the collective alchemy of a live concert so precisely it hurts. Remember that “gathered knot of amplified quiet after the tuning up and the last cough”? Specifically, gallingly, he evokes the breath-held hush of mutual anticipation, “atoms tensed for the first contact of horsehair and gut”.
It is bold of the Hallé orchestra to open its latest online concert, available to stream via its website, with a reminder of what it cannot offer at present. The orchestral lockdown stream is a tricky form, not yet fully sussed out. The Hallé is gamely testing a behind-the-scenes docu-concert hybrid, with conductor Jonathan Bloxham – who stepped in at short notice – doing a valiant job as host. Some beautiful Copland is followed by a four-minute advert for the building: musicians and administrators dutifully waxing promotional about awards and sponsors. After Armitage deals with beginnings, we witness the challenge of endings: places where applause should erupt, where amassed exhalation should dissipate the emotional focus of the performance. Jess Gillam finishes her assured and sensitive rendition of Glazunov’s Saxophone Concert and looks justifiably buzzed and expectant. She has played superbly; now it should be the audience’s turn to make some noise. Instead, conductor and orchestra smile and shuffle their feet.
The concert proper begins with Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City”, written for a 1939 Irwin Shaw play about a man who changes his name and denies his heritage to make money. Only when our flush protagonist hears his broke but honest brother playing trumpet does his heart tug and his conscience pique. Early reviewers of “Quiet City” likened the solo lines to Walt Whitman’s “Mystic Trumpeter”. Music, Whitman cautions, will always outdo attempts to match it in words. The Hallé’s principal cor anglais (Tom Davey) and trumpet (Gareth Small) trade plaintive missives across pale strings. Copland’s music is often done with default big-vista strokes. Not here, not with these thinned sections spaced out around the room. I like this vulnerable side of the composer Virgil Thomson once anointed “the president of American music”. Less flush, more honest.
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Later, Armitage returns with his poem “Evening”. Vivid and venturesome, a tad wistful, his lines follow a child trotting along bridleways in the low light, full of an urge to jaunt a bit further even though dusk is coming and there are reasons to turn back. He invokes a puppyish enthusiasm for expedition (again: what we’re missing!) in an age before twilight and mending and consequence.
Maurice Ravel’s friends described him as childlike. The French composer cut stars in his bedroom door because he wanted to wake up to sunny constellations. He got along with children because he would sit on their level – “never write down for them”, in the words of Peter Maxwell Davies, another expert composer of children’s music. Bloxham and the Hallé bring out the delicacy in Ravel’s fairy-tale “Mother Goose” suite. There are meticulous solos and moments of miniature wonder.
I’ve saved the highlight till last: “Where is the chariot of fire?”, a new work by Hannah Kendall, an important voice in British contemporary classical music. Kendall was born in 1984, grew up in north-west London, began playing violin at four, and spent her teenage years listening to Rachmaninov symphonies and grime on pirate radio stations. In the spirit of imbibing her influences, I lose a happy morning to Beyoncé videos, Basquiat paintings and Scarlatti. In an interview after the performance, Kendall reveals how the pandemic stranded her in the UK (she usually lives in New York); the only book of poetry she had was a Lemn Sissay collection. What good fortune: the scorching defiance of Sissay’s poem “Godsell” stood out because, she says, “we’re all looking for moments of hope and opportunity”.
That poem inspired her new piece, which is only five minutes long but searingly impactful. It has a thrilling latent danger, a sleek command. A snare drum provides arched-eyebrow commentary against a shadowy saunter from bassoon, strings, muted brass. The camera draws us to a pair of tiny music boxes inside a grand piano: Kendall has a knack for pithy, potent drama. The writing reminds me of the intricate craft of Helen Grime, the litheness of Tansy Davies, the dream-state immersion of Kaija Saariaho (complete with voices whispered from your innermost ear). I hear the nervy, eruptive squalls of Birtwistle or Bauckholt. Trumpets dart and spit like snake tongues. Now I want to hear this piece done by an ensemble that will really growl and screech, whose ferocity is doubled because when they hold back, you know what noises lie beneath the surface.
Kendall keeps her scores on a tight leash, and I am curious whether in time she will let it loosen or stick with the control. Either way, she clearly knows what she wants, and how to make it come alive.
“The Event Horizon”, episode three of the Hallé Orchestra’s winter season, is available to stream on halle.co.uk; tickets £14
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden