The Northern Chamber Orchestra provide backing, and act as a support act, for soloist Craig Ogden who is performing as part of the Manchester Guitar Festival.
There is an informal tone to the concert. There is no conductor so first violin Nicholas Ward keeps time and students from Chetham’s School of Music join the orchestra for the first two numbers. Although the programme is described as a collection of English compositions for strings there is an international theme with selections from Ireland, Wales and particularly Australia.
The opening number, Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, has featured in film scores for movies like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Even if audiences are unfamiliar with the films the cinematic quality of the music is obvious, opening with an ominous plucked string introduction before moving on to full sweeping grandeur.
Folk songs are, by their nature, simple and often rough ballads suitable for being bawled out after a few drinks. The lush orchestral arrangement of Percy Grainger’s Irish Tune from County Derry (better known with lyrics as Danny Boy) might not be to everyone’s taste. If the Grainger tune seems an obvious choice a second folk melody – a surprise addition to the programme – is radical. James Manson’s arrangement of the Moldovan folk tune Banjoes Jeti is so rare Manson acknowledges he does not know the meaning of the title.
Soloist Craig Ogden introduces Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto Op.67 explaining as, in classical music, the guitar is closely associated with Spain every effort has been made to eliminate any trace of flamenco influences. It has a swaggeringly urban sound; the horn section replicating the blaring of car horns and big city bustle over which Ogden’s fluid guitar dances. There is an element of conflict moving to resolution and cooperation as initial confrontation between the orchestra and the soloist melts away in the final movement, allowing the latter to take full control building to a joyful conclusion.
The verbal introduction to Peter Sculthorpe’s Nourlangie is not really needed; it is impossible to miss the indigenous Australian tone of the piece. With the string section replicating bird sounds and the ominous droning backing, the music could not have originated anywhere else. It evokes not so much wide-open spaces as an aching sense of loneliness.
The programme concludes with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings Op.47. This is not only a true crowd-pleaser, its technical complexity pushes the Northern Chamber Orchestra to their limits demonstrating their full abilities.
The combination of orchestral works with Craig Ogden’s intense solos allows for a programme that is both sweeping and intimate.
Reviewed on 22nd May 2022.