It is unusual for The Stoller Hall, a venue associated with classical music, to host a festival celebrating the guitar – an instrumental linked to rock music. However, the solo concert by Sean Shibe demonstrates if nothing else, the Manchester Guitar Festival is not afraid to experiment.
The Stoller Hall is associated with Chetham’s School of Music so it seems appropriate the opening number is closer to an academic research project than a finished piece of music. The concert is in two acts and for the first Shibe plays only acoustic guitar. His stagecraft is basic – as he does not use a microphone hearing his spoken instructions is something of a challenge.
Anonymous Scottish Lute Manuscripts which opens the show is not a finished concert-ready piece but a collection of sketches or drafts which, after revision, might have become a polished score. Inevitably, therefore, the playing is tentative as delicate notes are picked and the tunes move towards, but never become jigs or reels. The stop-start nature of the piece prevents it from becoming completely satisfying but it is certainly a fascinating experiment.
There is nothing tentative about the main part of the first act. Shibe’s playing on Bach’s Suite in E Minor, BWV 996 is fluid and even at times dramatic which is perfect for the Baroque dance suite.
Shibe switches to an electric guitar for the second act. In the style of Pat Metheny and the late John Martyn the instrument is adjusted to generate repetitive rolls and beats or simply distortion. Shibe continues to challenge himself – of the four pieces two are choral rather than instrumental and one was written for the bagpipes not guitar. The Stoller Hall is a cautious venue, worried the switch from acoustic to electric guitar might overwhelm patrons ushers wander the aisles offering ear protectors.
Guitar distortion creates an echoey tone bringing an oddly jazz vibe to Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium! (O sacred banquet). It is a piece that constantly moves towards but does not reach a climax. The second choral piece, Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Viridissima Virga; O Choruscans Lux Stellarum, which concludes the concert is striking for its brevity – barely seeming to have started before it abruptly ends.
Reich’s Electric Counterpoint is a stark minimalist composition (the three movements are titled Fast, Slow, and Fast). Loud rushing beats pulse in the background then rumble forward surrounding the audience while Shibe picks out repetitive but surprisingly bright chords to push to a cheerful conclusion.
Shibe’s interpretation of Julia Wolfe’s Lad is harsh; the tune is intended as mournful but Shibe creates a full howl of anguish and grief. The volume of the guitar is brutally loud and Shibe playing the strings at the very bottom of the instrument brings an elemental tone – as if being buffeted by raging winds. The gradual shift towards a rough jig brings a welcome sense of recovery from trauma.
The Manchester Guitar Festival gives Sean Shibe the chance to showcase his skills and challenge himself, and, on occasion, the audience.
Reviewed on 20th May 2022.