To quote from the blurb on Howard Assembly Room’s website for this event, ‘Unquiet is the progressive new live experience devised by acclaimed conductor and composer Robert Ames and brought to life by the world renowned Manchester Camerata alongside a rotating cast of artists’. Can’t argue with that. Manchester Camerata’s website describes it as ‘A new music series for the brave and the curious.’ Can’t argue with that, either, although I probably only qualify for the second adjective.
The evening was split into three parts; a performance by Robert Ames and Ben Corrigan, called CARBS; a selection of works by Hildur Guònadóttir, Afrodeutsche, Mica Levi, Philip Glass and Bruce Dessner; ending with a live solo piece from Carmen Villain and a new work in which she was joined by Manchester Camerata. To say that the music was varied would be an understatement. It was all modern and I found that it needed to be listened to in different ways.
I admit to having been wrong-footed by Messrs Ames and Corrigan in that, when they took to the stage, there was ambient music in the background, which had been playing since we took our seats. This continued as the pair started getting a violin and a guitar prepared for the set, before approaching the mixing desks and adjusting the sound level in what I thought was the preparation for the piece they were about to play. It took a minute or two do realise that they weren’t preparing, this was in fact the piece!
As the ambient music was increased in volume and the violin, guitar and electric drums were utilised in short bursts, all became clear. I found that watching two chaps adjusting mixing desks to be less than enthralling, so I fell back on the listening technique I had discovered at a previous concert at this venue and sat back and closed my eyes, letting the sound carry me away with no external distraction. This did the trick perfectly and I enjoyed the work a lot more than I thought I would. Sometimes the onus is on the listener, as well as the performer, to improvise.
After a short interval Manchester Camerata appeared, and this time their leader, Caroline Pether, gave us an introduction about what we were about to hear, and a short resumé of the pieces. The word ‘camerata’ means small orchestra and those present tonight were an ensemble made up of seven string players, who were sadly not introduced.
Although some of the works were ‘challenging’ they were not so unorthodox as to be unlistenable, especially after the information and guidance we had been given by Ms Pether. There was a good balance between the melodic, jarring, fast and slow pieces. There was even one which I found quite amusing. It was the last movement of Thoughts Are Born by Mica Levi, which traced the process in her discovery of God. The music was played in total darkness, not even the lights on the music stands were illuminated. One of the violinists had taken to a small lighting desk by the side of the stage where she added to the performance by occasionally turning on a very bright light which shot a beam upwards from behind the raised stage, giving an eerie quality, which was appropriate given that it was only two days before Halloween! Although the light had been intermittently used whilst the music was in full flow, at the end of the piece the playing stopped, only resuming for one chord to be played when the light was intermittently switched on. To begin with that was fine, but the intervals grew longer until we didn’t know whether it had finished or not. There was a prolonged silence in the auditorium until the stage lights were turned back on and we could applaud.
The third part was a solo set from Carmen Villain on another keyboard/mixing desk and occasional clarinet. Again I reverted to the closed eyes method of listening. The Camerata returned and joined Ms Villain in a piece called ‘Faces’ in which the traditional and electronic instruments melded perfectly together. A great way to round off what had been a challenging, if enjoyable evening. Needless to say, I was not whistling any of the tunes on the way to the bus stop!
Should I have unleashed your bravery and curiosity and tempted you to see a performance of Unquiet, it is on in Norwich on 4th November, Birmingham on 6th and Bristol on 8th. Please go to https://manchestercamerata.co.uk/performances/unquiet/ for tickets and details. Why not have look at what else they are up to whilst you are there.
For events coming up at Howard Assembly Room it is https://www.operanorth.co.uk/event-tag/har/
Photographs by Stan Graham