Thursday 30 March 2023

A joy in telling stories in music: the Manchester Camerata, the Monastery & music

Manchester Camerata's Music Cafe at the Monastery (Photo Duncan Elliott)
Manchester Camerata's Music Cafe at the Monastery (Photo Duncan Elliott)

If you visit Gorton in Manchester today, it is something of a puzzle why E.W. Pugin's gloriously exotic church, now known as The Monastery, even exists, surrounded as it is by desolation and modern housing estates. Built at the height of Manchester's 19th-century expansion, abandoned and nearly demolished in the 20th century it has been re-invented as a community hub and resource, as well as the home to one of Manchester's liveliest ensembles, the Manchester Camerata.

In the mid-19th century, Gorton was a hive of industry, home to a number of industrial plants. The growing population needed religious support and a group of Belgian Franciscan friars came over and in the 1860s built a church as their base. Technically it was a friary, but it became known locally as the Monastery. When we were students in Manchester in the 1970s we called it the rocket ship, and it was in the then deeply unfashionable Victorian gothic style, designed by E.W. Pugin, son of the more famous A.W. Pugin.

The last friar left in 1989 and what followed is a typical story - sale to a rogue developer, abandonment, vandalisation, desolation. In the early 21st century a former choir boy and his wife rediscovered it and made it their mission to restore it and find a use. Now fully restored, missing buildings re-built and operating as a wedding and event venue, its rooms are let out for office space and Manchester Camerata is among the tenants. The money made from such commercial operations goes to the building's support and to funding the Monastery's many community activities including an important listening service.

The Monastery, Gorton, Manchester (Photo: Cnbrb/Wikipedia)
The Monastery, Gorton, Manchester (Photo: Cnbrb/Wikipedia)

But Manchester Camerata didn't just plonk itself down in Gorton, after all you could argue, what does any deprived community need with an orchestra? The orchestra spent six months talking and listening. The result is a series of community activities with musicians and community coming together. Young people from the local Youth Zone have formed a choir and they perform at the Manchester Camerata's Christmas Gospel Concert. And now two people have been taken on to work further with local Youth Zones.

The orchestra has a long history of work in dementia, running its Music and Mind programme since, with a collaboration with the University of Manchester into music and music therapy in relation to helping those with dementia. This work has flowered at the Monastery with the Wednesday Music Cafe, for those with dementia, their carers and music therapists. These events are not about listening to concerts, they are about music for all, the way music remains when speech fails, so you have a musical conversation. Nowhere else does the idea of the power of music to change lives make such a mark. Music also helps reduce agitation in dementia sufferers and reduces medication.

The orchestra's collaboration with the University is bearing results in other ways, and there is now a separate company, Music and Mind Remote, which aims to spread the impact of Manchester Camerata's Music and Mind programme across the UK.

When the Manchester Camerata moved into the Monastery they gave several concerts including a more experimental one, with music from 1980s New York including Arthur Russell, Julius Eastman and Philip Glass. More recently another event, The People Make the Place was a musical celebration of all facets of the orchestra's work in Gorton, from the Music Cafe, to the Youth Zones and more. RPS composer Alex Ho wrote a work, Carved in Gorton Stone, evoking Gorton and the Monastery, including a passage evoking the now lost organ. It was a not unchallenging piece and the audience consisted of local people, many parents come to hear their children performing. The response showed that you should never underestimate the power of music to involve and move people.

Manchester Camerata's The People make the Place at the Monastery
Manchester Camerata's The People make the Place at the Monastery

Manchester Camerata won an RPS award for its dementia work, for one of its videos. During my visit to Manchester the idea of telling stories was one that people constantly came back to, and during lockdown the orchestra conceived the idea of telling people's stories in short videos, in a project called Untold. In one, the orchestra's leader, Caroline Pether, talked about being a Christian and a gay woman, along with music of course [see the video on YouTube]. Untold also included a video about Keith, a dementia sufferer and participant in the Music Cafe, describing what music meant in the life of him and his wife. It was this video that won the RPS award, you can see the video on the Manchester Camerata website.

The orchestra is something of a Manchester cultural institution. Founded in 1972, I well remember their concerts from my student days in the 1970s. The orchestra's current programme is remarkably diverse, with their Mozart, Made in Manchester series with pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and artistic director Gábor Takács-Nagy, which is currently on a tour of the Baltic states and Poland, Hacienda Classical,  collaborations with producer and DJ AFRODEUTSCHE and opera. This is, to a large extent, deliberate, a wish to widen the cultural map. 

I chatted to CEO Bob Riley who explained that around 10 years ago the orchestra became interested in looking at both concerts and repertoire, playing in unusual venues and broadening the music played. The result was programming like Hacienda Classical which gives a classical spin to anthems played at the Hacienda nightclub.  A programme with which the orchestra opened the Glastonbury Festival in 2017 and has gone on to have enormous popularity.

But alongside the diversity was a desire to return to the pure musical energy of their classical purpose. In 2010, pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet came to Manchester to perform Haydn's keyboard concertos with conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy. It was something of a match made in heaven. Gábor Takács-Nagy's wife is a local girl, from Burnley, whilst  Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's wife, also a pianist, is Hungarian. So there was a common language of music-making. The Mozart piano concertos were suggested as a project. At first, they simply concentrated on those from 1785 but the success of the concerts and recording led to the project to perform and record all of Mozart's piano concertos. This year's concert was number eight of a planned eleven, with Bavouzet's wife joining them for the two and three piano concertos. [See my review of the most recent concert]

Mozart, Made in Manchester - Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy, Manchester Camerata at The Stoller Hall
Mozart, Made in Manchester - Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy, Manchester Camerata at The Stoller Hall

Gábor Takács-Nagy is pairing the concertos with overtures, matching them by date, reflecting the particularly theatrical way both conductor and soloist have with the music. But Mozart, Made in Manchester is about more than just the Manchester Camerata. Concerts and recordings are in The Stoller Hall and students from Chetham's School of Music are involved, both in masterclasses and with four students joining the Manchester Camerata for rehearsals and performances. And when the orchestra toured to China in 2018, five students from Chetham's came along too. All this contributes to the rather special atmosphere so that Manchester Camerata, The Stoller Hall and Chetham's are part of the project.

It is a story about the talent in the school and in the orchestra; a current student may find themselves sitting alongside a Chetham's alumnus or someone who trained in Manchester. The result is a very particular atmosphere, distinctive to the ensemble and the place.

So, the orchestra's ethos is not just about redefining and disrupting the classical experience, it is about returning to the core repertoire with a new energy, a new approach. To a certain extent bringing the thrill of the other programmes, of playing Glastonbury to Mozart. Other aspects of the orchestra's programmes such as the dementia work and the more socially conscious events help feed into this, the two intertwine. The principal flute in the Mozart performances is a trained music-therapist.

Hacienda Classical - Manchester Camerata

The musicians in the orchestra have around 100 to 120 days work per year, with not many events being repeated. There are traditional concerts, work for promoters, accompanying traditional choral societies, opera and events like joining AFRODEUTSCHE at Manchester International Festival. The orchestra has collaborated with her before with some success. Evidently she had always wanted to write for orchestra, and the orchestra toured a new work by her in Autumn last year. For their joint performance at this year's Manchester International Festival, the event will be the first ever orchestral concert at The Factory.

There is no set direction, the orchestra is happy to explore as long as it is what the artists want and it embodies humanity, originality and excellence.

The various strands of the orchestra's community and social involvement along with their diverse artistic partnerships all feed back into what seems to be a core value, the importance of story-telling. Gábor Takács-Nagy is a great story-teller both in music and words; at his concert he usually talks to the audience about the music.

The aim is not to be siloed but for the different strands of work to be complementary. The community events and those at the Monastery (including an annual performance of Handel's Messiah) attract those for whom The Stoller Hall remains intimidating. The orchestra has managed to build a loyalty to the brand, they can present things which encourage the different strands of their audience to take risks.

Manchester Camerata's Music Cafe at the Monastery (Photo Duncan Elliott)
Manchester Camerata's Music Cafe at the Monastery (Photo Duncan Elliott)

Manchester Camerata is one of those organisations that is more than the sum of its parts. All the people that I talked to had a strong sense of the sheer joy in the diversity of the orchestra's work and the way it hangs together. A joy in telling stories in music.

When I first visited the Monastery in Gorton in the 1970s, the area was still bleak, blighted by the idea of slum clearance and the loss of industry. What could an orchestra mean to them? But Gorton is still a community with a strong identity, and Manchester Camerata has shown that by listening and responding, it has a part to play.

My thanks to Bob Riley and Seb Mariner from the Manchester Camerata, and to Kate from the Monastery, for their help and hospitality during my visit to Manchester.

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Elsewhere on this blog

  • Focus on Manchester:
    • Successfully integrated into the same eco-system, The Stoller Hall and Chetham's School of Music - feature
    • Let other pens dwell on misery and grief - a joyous ensemble performance of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park from RNCM Opera - opera review
    • The latest in Manchester Camerata's Mozart, Made in Manchester series featured a lovely creative dialogue between Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Gábor Takács-Nagy and the players - concert review
    • Henning Kraggerud & RNCM Chamber Orchestra in RNCM's Original Voices Festival concert review
  • After Byrd: HEXAD Collective launches its concert series exploring hidden music for voices - concert review
  • The go-to place for information about opera performances across the globe: we chat to Operabase's new CEO, Ulrike Köstinger - interview
  • A lockdown success story: St Mary's Perivale and its amazing programme of 120 recitals per year, viewed live and online - interview 
  • Late romanticism and youthful vitalityCello Concertos by Enrique Casals & Édouard Lalo from Jan Vogler & Moritzburg Festival Orchestra - record review
  • Friends are nothing, Family nothing, all the world is a wilderness: premiere recording of Jonathan Dove's In Exile - record review
  • Gilbert & Sullivan's Ruddigore: All-singing, all-dancing small-scale show at Wilton's Music Hall - opera review
  • A nice mix of Wagner, Franck and Saint-Saens: Anton Hanson of Quatuor Hanson, on the chamber version of Chausson's Poème on their disc, Chants nostalgiques - interview
  • Home

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