Carmen Reworked – Manchester Confidential
Posted on April 27, 2014
Sunday 27 April 2014
Albert Hall, Manchester
WHAT do you do when your ballerina wife demands a dance version of Bizet’s Carmen? Why, you ask Dimitri Shostakovich, of course, and the great composer (who’d included Habanera motifs from the opera in his Fifth Symphony) tells you the music is too beautiful to tamper with.
So Rodion Shchedrin waits another decade until 1967 before finally adapting the music for his 13 movement Carmen Suite for Strings And Percussion, his missus Maya Plisetskaya performs it with the Bolshoi and the Soviet authorities ban it for being too sexy and disrespectful to Bizet.
At about the same time the Albert Hall, a glorious Wesleyan chapel, enters its own period of limbo, shut up and forgotten. Shchedrin’s compulsive percussion tour de force will be reprieved but the Albert Hall will slumber on, a cobwebbed sleeping beauty, latterly above Brannigan’s bar, until its eventual rescue by Trof bars entrepreneur Joel Wilkinson.
Manchester Camerata conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy pays tribute to Joel at the start of their Sunday afternoon programme in the iconic venue. It’s a typical playful Camerata line-up for smallish string ensemble, featuring in the first half Grieg’s Baroque-meets-Romantic Holberg Suite, The Temptress, a taut, disturbing violin-led piece drawn from the first 16 pitches of a Carmen aria by Camerata Composers’ Project 2014 winner Tom Harrold and a serene Mozart Piano Concerto No12 played engagingly by Norwegian prodigy Christian Ihle Hadland.
But it is after the interval that astonishment lies. You’ve shaken off the bum-numbing effects of sitting on the Hall’s wooden benches, the disappointment of the drinks selection and you’re suddenly aware of the imposing array of percussion instruments set out below the stage.
No room up there for the marimba, chimes, vibraphone, timpani, castanets tom-toms, clave, hi-hat cymbals and more demanded by the score. What a dream showcase for the often under-employed Camerata percussion section. Watching the four percussionists, Janet Fulton, Edward Cervenka, Mark Concar and Harry Percy, rise to the occasion is as mesmerising as the setting.
Well-known melodies from Carmen and, for good measure other Bizet favourites such as L’Arlesienne, are given a radical twist, primarily by the spiky strident percussive effects. From a teasingly deconstructed Toreadors onwards, a Frenchman’s take on Spain turns into a near-Shostakovichian, certainly Russian musical jigsaw. Fun, fun, fun teetering on insane. The final section features a pastiche of numerous themes, notably when massed marimbas are matched against low strings to emphasise the tragic ending to Carmen’s story.
Throughout, despite the intrusion of the percussion, the Camerata strings, marshalled by leader Giovanni Guzzo, contribute their own weight to a remarkable performance – the first, apparently of several by the chamber orchestra in unusual venues.
I’m unsure whether they’ll be sharing the stage again with the Albert Hall gig’s wild card, Martynas Levickis, winner of Lithuania’s Got Talent. He was billed as ‘encore’ and performed two solo pieces that revealed both sides of his accordion virtuosity – the first a challenging freeform display dissonance with chants in Spanish, the second a beatific chunk of Four Seasons Vivaldi.
He was only on stage for 15 fascinating minutes. What a shame a good smattering of the audience headed for the exits after piece number one. How rude on an afternoon of such bliss.
Manchester Confidential – Carmen Reworked, Reviewer – Neil Sowerby