Tuesday 28 March 2023

Successfully integrated into the same eco-system: The Stoller Hall and Chetham's School of Music in Manchester

Manchester: left to right, Manchester Cathedral, the Victorian former Manchester Grammar School building, Chetham's 1421 buildings and The Stoller Hall.
Manchester: left to right, Manchester Cathedral, the Victorian former Manchester Grammar School building, Chetham's 15th century buildings and The Stoller Hall.
In the foreground left, the National Football Museum

The Stoller Hall in Manchester is the most recent addition to an ensemble of buildings that goes back to the 15th century. At that period, housing was built for the clergy of Manchester Collegiate Church, now the Cathedral. Thanks to the generosity of Sir Humphrey Chetham, in 1653 the buildings became a school for 20 poor boys along with a free public library. This historic library, which still exists, played host to Marx and Engels during their influential time in Manchester. The 19th and 20th centuries saw an expansion of the site and at one point the Manchester Grammar School, Nicholls Hospital School and Chetham’s School all shared the site. In the 1970s, Chetham's became a specialist music school, and in 2017, The Stoller Hall was opened. This provides Manchester with a first-class smaller-scale hall as well as creating a new school facility. My photograph above shows the site today, left to right, Manchester Cathedral, the Victorian former Manchester Grammar School building, Chetham's 15th century buildings and The Stoller Hall.

If you visit The Stoller Hall for a concert, then what you experience is a well-designed modern hall with a central atrium and an additional smaller recital hall. The main hall's acoustics are very fine. I heard the Manchester Camerata rehearsing their latest Mozart, Made in Manchester programme with their artistic director Gábor Takács-Nagy and pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, and the warmly responsive acoustic seemed ideal for the music.

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

What such a visit gives no hint of is that the hall is part of the school campus, when in public use the hall is locked down with no access to the school. 
As a school facility, it provides a resource including for major musical events. For the rest of the time, Fran Healey (the hall's general manager) programmes a lively, mixed programme. Classical music concerts feature thanks to the regular (around three per week during term-time) lunchtime concerts given by Chetham's pupils, from juniors through to those preparing for conservatoire. There are regular concerts from the Manchester Chamber Concerts Society (an organisation whose history goes back to 1936) as well as other events such as Manchester Camerata (whose Mozart, Made in Manchester concert on Saturday 25 March 2023 was sold out) and I noticed concerts by the Gorton Philharmonic Orchestra, the Manchester Beethoven Orchestra, sitarist and composer Jasdeep Singh Degun in the forthcoming season.

But the beauty of the hall is that it is responsive to a variety of different genres. Fran Healey feels that its success comes from the hall's friendly, welcoming feel and the acoustics mean that wherever you sit, the experience is intimate.

Fran is keen not just to programme different genres but to encourage people to experiment and try different things. One of the projects aiming to do this is the Manchester Guitar Festival. First run last year, the second edition, from 19 to 21 May 2023, brings together a whole variety of guitar styles and genres across a weekend, on the basis of 'if you like the guitar, why not try this?', with participation from professionals, students and amateurs. There is Blues from Eric Bibb, classical from the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet, Flamenco from Miguel Perez, and more. They are hoping people will bring their guitars, there are workshops for everything from flamenco to how to use a loop pedal. Some of the workshops are being given by students at Chetham's, whilst several Chetham's alumni are returning for the festival. This year's festival is far more participatory than last year, and plans are already being made for next year's event, whilst last year's festival had 80% of its attendees as first-time visitors to The Stoller Hall. And the festival helps to demonstrate how hall and school are very much integrated. 

Sean Shibe performs at Manchester Guitar Festival May 2022
Sean Shibe performs at Manchester Guitar Festival May 2022

Fran has started working with Ensemble 360, who bring one of their family events as well as giving a public concert in the evening, thus linking the family programme with the main concert series. And next season, they have an emerging artists programme, working with performers just out of conservatoire, mezzo-soprano Phoebe Rayner, wind quintet Ensemble Renard, the Asaka Quartet, the Smoragaschord Collective, and harpist Helena Ricci. In a nice synergy, some of the Asaka Quartet's members are Chetham's alumni. This project doesn't just give the young artists somewhere to perform, it also provides advice on practical matters that go into running a musical career. 

Whilst at The Stoller Hall, I was lucky enough to meet up with Tom Redmond, joint principal and director of music at Chetham's. He sees the school's role as being to provide an outstanding musical education, a solid grounding to prepare the students for the results of what is a complicated profession. The school is aware of its origins in Sir Humphrey Chetham's school for poor boys and every effort is made to enable Chetham's musical environment to be open to all who might benefit from it. 90% of students are supported by some sort of bursary, with a significant percentage on a full bursary. They do not want cost to be a barrier, and simply look for children with the spark and potential to thrive in Chetham's musical environment. At most schools, music is an extra activity, but at Chetham's it is part of the everyday.

It is an international school, with a broad range both in terms of diversity of race and socio-economic class. Pupils range in age from eight to 18, including the choristers from the Cathedral. There is no set entry age, but the junior department is growing. And of the 330 students, around two-thirds are boarders.

Before The Stoller Hall, concerts took place in the basement of the Victorian building (formerly Manchester Grammar School). A fine example of a Victorian hall, but not a world-class concert facility. For the students, learning to perform in a space like The Stoller Hall takes them to another level. And the space is adaptable, from chamber music to symphonic.

The students also benefit from the presence of the artist performing at the hall. The week I was there, students from Chetham's were working alongside Manchester Camerata players with Gábor Takács-Nagy at the Mozart, Made in Manchester rehearsals, Gábor Takács-Nagy has been giving masterclasses. The Brodsky Quartet played at the hall and worked with students, performing Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 with an ensemble of string players. The result is to integrate the two organisations' aims and objectives.

And not just for classical. Recently string players from Chetham's had a chance to sit down with two of the greatest living folk fiddlers. The teaching programme at Chetham's is classical music oriented, with a jazz strand as well. they have no set commercial music course, but try to encourage a whole range of music and ensembles. 

At the end of this term, the large-scale work being performed by the school is Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. In fact, this academic year has had something of a Walton theme because they began with Walton's Henry V, a delayed celebration of the fact that King Henry V signed their original charter. Belshazzar is being performed at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall, conducted by Grant Llewellyn, who was in one of the school's first intakes after becoming a specialist music school. Those school students not playing in the orchestra are joining the choir, alongside St George's Voices and Chetham's alumni. Thus the performance will include Chetham's students from across the years, including some who took part in previous school performances of Belshazzar.

Most of the school's symphonic concerts take place in The Stoller Hall, but the size of the ensemble for Belshazzar entails a transfer to Bridgewater Hall. The programme also includes Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Richard Harvey's Recorder Concerto. Both soloists are current students at Chetham's and each concerto was the choice of the student.

Chetham's Symphony Orchestra, July 2022 at The Stoller Hall
Chetham's Symphony Orchestra, July 2022 

The Stoller Hall replaced one of the school's old teaching buildings. In 2012, the school completed its capital project renewing the school estate, and the intention had always been to have a concert hall but initially there just wasn't the finance. Then an Oldham industrialist, Sir Norman Stoller, gave the money for the hall; an amazing act of generosity. And Sir Norman also contributed significantly to the Cathedral's new organ; the historic instrument was badly damaged in World War Two and had simply been patched up.

There would be no Stoller Hall without Sir Norman Stoller, and the result is a unique small-scale venue that successfully doubles as public space and school building, yet successfully integrates the two into the same eco-system. 
  • 19-21 May 2023 - Manchester Guitar Festival - The Stoller Hall
  • 6 July 2023 - Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 2, Harvey: Concerto Incantato, Walton: Belshazzar's Feast - Jamie Brown (piano), Anna Williams (recorder), Chetham's Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, St. George's Singers, Chetham's Alumni, Grant Llewellyn (conductor) - Bridgewater Hall

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