Sir Mark Elder’s deputy delivers an appealing Promenade Concert

Bizet, SaintSaëns, Ravel, Prokofiev: Sir Mark Elder (narrator), Hallé Orchestra/Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 9.7.2011 (MC)

A Suite from Carmen
Saëns: Carnival of the Animals, narrated with poems from Ogden Nash
Ravel: Mother Goose: Suite
Prokofiev : Romeo and Juliet: Selection

Entertainment was the watchword for this Hallé Promenade Concert at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and was delivered in spades.

Designed to have popular appeal with the majority of the Hallé’s programme on the accessible side this concert nevertheless contained impressive music. Although not, as far as I know, aimed particularly at children, the audience contained a fair number of young people. This demonstrated to me the definite potential in Manchester for attracting young people to classical music concerts.

In May I reported on a youth concert (Jugendkonzert) in Munich, Germany with an audience packed with young teenagers in their school groups and as far as I know all paying 9.50 euros each. Shrewdly the Munich Philharmonic had engaged a well known German television presenter who bounced about the stage energetically with a microphone introducing and joking with several of the orchestral players to an amused audience. This remarkably successful Munich model could certainly be followed in Manchester.

To a pretty full house the Hallé concert opener was the Suite from Bizet’s Carmen that Fritz Hoffmann prepared after the composer’s death. This was my first look at Andrew Gourlay the Hallé’s assistant conductor who radiated a quiet assurance. Taking brisk speeds Gourlay rolled out an exciting account of Bizet’s memorable melodies although Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite after Bizet would have been a more interesting and less predictable choice here.

Next Hallé music director Sir Mark Elder took on an unfamiliar role as narrator in Ogden Nash’s clever set of humorous verses written to accompany the Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. Centred around the two pianos the appealing fourteen movement suite rarely fails to delight and the Hallé provided playing of xceptional elegance. The score allows plenty of opportunity for the woodwind section to shine and how they glowed, while Sir Mark’s narration was amusing and splendidly conveyed.

After the interval the audience was treated to Ravel’s orchestral ballet version of Mother Goose, a score he originally designed for children to play as a piano duet. Whimsical and delightful and often intensely passionate Gourlay successfully managed to bring out the undercurrent of melancholy that flows through the music. Once again the woodwind excelled, especially the outstanding oboe and clarinet principals. I always find Ravel’s final movement Enchanted Garden a special spine-tingling touch of genius.

Finally we reached the music selected from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, a marvellously dramatic score that has become exceedingly popular in recent years. Prokofiev’s vivid and exciting orchestration was ardently illuminated by Gourlay. The spectacular playing from the Hallé required abundant reserves of energy and assurance. The Hallé strings were deeply satisfying rhoughout and the sound of the five horns would have honoured Bayreuth. There were times in this Prokofiev masterwork the Hallé sounded like an authentic Russian orchestra.

Michael Cookson