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The Hallé’s progress

Michael Henderson talks to Mark Elder, music director of the Manchester orchestra

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

The Hallé Orchestra launched its new season last week in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, with a rich programme featuring works by two late Romantic masters. They played Elgar’s Enigma Variations as well as one would expect of a band that enjoys an unparalleled relationship with that composer, and they performed Death and Transfiguration, one of Richard Strauss’s early masterpieces, with no less colour. In fact it could be said that, under Mark Elder, whose music directorship is entering its sixth year, the Hallé has won its colours back.

When he succeeded Kent Nagano in 2000, Elder said, in a phrase that is damning for being so understated, that he found a group of players who were ‘competent, but not involved’. That is how the audiences felt, too. Despite leaving its old home, the famous but antiquated Free Trade Hall in 1996, for the liberating pleasures of the superb Bridgewater acoustic, the Hallé sounded like an orchestra whose glory days remained in the memories of those who recalled the 30-year stewardship of the man whose name will forever be associated with Manchester: Sir John Barbirolli.

The country’s oldest orchestra did not handle the Barbirolli succession adroitly. After JB’s death in 1970, the Scot, James Loughran, became chief conductor. The Eighties belonged to Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, a granite-jawed Polish-American, who felt comfortable with Bruckner but often appeared as though the business of music-making was an intolerable burden. Then came another hyphenated American, the Japanese-Californian, Kent Nagano, who failed to establish any sort of relationship with either the players or the audience. It didn’t help that the atmosphere was fouled by severe financial problems that almost crippled the orchestra.

Now, on a surer footing, and with youthful players — more than 40 of them women — responding willingly to Elder’s direction, the Hallé sounds like an orchestra of which Manchester can again be proud. It has released a succession of well-received CDs on its own label, notably for Elgar’s Second Symphony, and is winning fine notices wherever it goes. It returned to Manchester last week from a tour of Europe that included performances in Cologne, Brussels and Vienna’s Musikverein.

Elder, who recently renewed his contract for a further three years, speaks of taking a ‘long-term view, based on a relationship of trust between the players and the public, and creating a distinctive musical personality in an age when the microphone and the jet plane are taking away the personality of orchestras’.

‘The danger,’ he says, ‘is that a particular style of playing, which has been passed down from one generation to another, has given way to a blander, less characterful sound world. It is important that the Hallé retains its style and its spirit — which is a questing spirit, a curiosity about its music-making — with a very good mix of youthful attack and more seasoned musicians. It may sound platitudinous but these players share a common commitment to their work, and to the orchestra’s success.’

Elder told the musicians when he arrived in Manchester that their relationship would acquire meaning ‘only when their soul was connected to the music. Only when everybody, even the ninth violin, is completely committed, can an orchestra grow. The only reason for people to come out on a rainy night in November is in the hope of hearing something memorable, and it will only be memorable if listeners and performers can go on a spiritual journey together.

‘Music expresses something enriched, and enriching, something that goes as far as possible into the psyche of a human being. It is the language most easily connected with our spiritual awareness. I hope that we can embark on spiritual journeys here, and build a sense of occasion. Many of our programmes are chosen with that in mind, rather than kowtowing to that very hard-to-define word, tradition.’

To that end, and in order to build audiences for the future, the Hallé has supported the music programmes that must now take the place of formal teaching in so many schools, where ‘music education’ consists of formless banging and scraping, and where classical music is often frowned on as something dangerously ‘elitist’. Earlier this year orchestra members went to schools in Bolton and Glossop, where, as Elder recalls, ‘most of the children had never before been so close to that kind of sonic power’.

‘It is crucially important,’ he says, ‘that children become aware of the feel of music, and it is important that music is part of their life and their town. If head teachers can appreciate music, if we can sow seeds at primary-school level, and show that music is an essential part of their life experience, that is a start. The orchestra is going full-pelt at this.’

One suspects that, while Elder has been good for the orchestra, the association has also been of benefit to him. Although he was the principal guest conductor at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra during Simon Rattle’s time there, Elder had not found a suitable niche since leaving the music director’s post at English National Opera in 1993. He remains a superb conductor of opera, a regular guest at the world’s leading houses, and he is looking to feature more opera in his Manchester programmes. Last season ended gloriously with the first act of Die Walk

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