Classical Music: Looks good, sounds great

Nerves ran high at the opening of Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. But the Halle Orchestra made spirits soar. By Malcolm Hayes
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The Independent Culture
Rain and civic pride are two of Manchester's perennial claims to fame, and both phenomena were much in evidence on Wednesday evening. It was raining when I and some 2,400 others arrived for the inaugural concert of the Bridgewater Hall, and I'm sure we'd all have felt bereft if it hadn't been. I can duly report that the roof of Manchester's new concert hall seems to be convincingly watertight. And that the Halle Orchestra's new home impresses in other ways that matter too.

Its visible features have already been much reported on: the external design, elegantly rather than aggressively angular, and the handsome auditorium whose dimensions deftly combine large-ish capacity with a feeling of reasonable intimacy. The crunch comes when the first audience assembles for the first concert. How well does the hall function? And just how good is its carefully devised and much-vaunted acoustic?

While critics are always rabbiting on about acoustics, other practicalities matter as much and more. (Milan's hallowed La Scala, for instance, has precisely four front-of-house ladies' loos. Enough said.) Bridgewater Hall's capacity first-night audience did not seem to be encountering much in the way of teething troubles: likely bottlenecks such as bars and cloakrooms looked to be functioning pretty smoothly.

There was a likeable lack of ceremony and pomposity, too, with which the audience assembled and the concert got under way. (Mancunian glitterati included Coronation Street stars and Denis Law - a genial scene compared to the gilded and oppressive London equivalent.) With the Halle Choir and Orchestra in place, on to the platform came music director Kent Nagano to give the historic downbeat - for the timpani roll that begins Elgar's arrangement of the National Anthem.

Even a single drum roll can instantly tell you something. If it actually sounds like a drum roll rather than a scratchy death-rattle, you know that for once you're in an auditorium where you can actually hear the bass - ie about half the music - properly. For those of us who hear most of our concerts in the Festival Hall or the Barbican, the ensuing couple of hours were in this respect the aural equivalent of pure oxygen. Bridgewater Hall's acoustic is indeed impressively warm, clean, and clear.

New hall or not, a concert is still a concert, and this one took a while to shake off some understandable first-night tension. Perhaps this was why the premiere of George Benjamin's specially commissioned Sometime Voices made an oddly subdued impact. There was skill and subtlety in Benjamin's choral and orchestral treatment to Caliban's "Be not afeard..." speech from The Tempest, with fragments of it sung (excellently) by baritone soloist William Dazeley while the chorus vocalised on the syllables of Caliban's name. But the work's conservatism was disconcerting, especially from a talent of Benjamin's boldness and brilliance.

It took Elgar's Enigma Variations for the Halle's players to get into their stride ("Nimrod" always helps), and Walton's Belshazzar's Feast to make the evening truly memorable. Nagano here set a scorching pace, and you don't need to tell any brass section north of Watford Gap what to do with this music. With the waves rolling so high, it seemed almost churlish to remember that the music's cross-rhythms strike even more sparks off each other if they're allowed a bit more room to do so. Thomas Allen's unaccompanied baritone resonated wonderfully around a hall that also accommodated even the loudest rampagings of the work's brilliant final chorus without bruising the ear. Walton's Crown Imperial, thrown in as an encore, blazed with similar splendour.

n The Halle Orchestra repeats the inaugural concert programme at Bridgewater Hall tonight (0161-907 9000)