Four of the five works in this Hallé concert were created to be danced, one of them by elephants.
Four of the five works in this Hallé concert were created to be danced, one of them by elephants. They prefer waltzes, apparently, but, at the risk of a stampede, they got a polka. Whatever the confusion Stravinsky's rhythms aroused in the pachyderms of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, his Circus Polka made for a perfectly executed curtain-raiser to the musical circus that followed, one of the more curious programmes presented by this orchestra.
The Hallé's new assistant conductor, André de Ridder, was in the firing line; he was conducting Satie's short ballet Parade when music director Mark Elder, in the percussion role of pistol-player, swaggered in, shooting from the hip. While the band played on (strains of Irving Berlin's That Mysterious Rag drifting alongside a catchy cakewalk tune) the Coronation Street butcher (John Savident) went clickety-click on a typewriter, and the Manchester City Council chief executive tried his luck on a wheel of fortune. So far, so surreal.
Having laid down his arms, Elder returned to the podium for the first performance of a clarinet concerto, Riffs and Refrains by Mark-Anthony Turnage. It's a bit of a blast from the past, as Turnage composed it four years ago, although it's dedicated retrospectively to the Hallé, Elder and that most persuasive of clarinettists, Michael Collins. In the jagged, jigsaw-like construction of the first movement, "Refrains", sinewy and athletic in its angular lines, Turnage exploits the full range and colour of the solo instrument, tricking the ear with not one but two false endings.
Though the composer claims that this is one of his happier works, the second of the two imaginatively scored movements has an elegiac quality, Collins spinning out his yearning, luminous line with a jazzman's freewheeling ease. Various instruments - celesta, soprano saxophone and bass clarinet in particular - parry with the clarinet, until the soloist's agitation reaches an anguished climax. Abruptly, as if its electrical charge had been switched off, it stutters out. Collins's technical control and variation in tone were matched by an orchestral accompaniment in which the players' expressive feel for the music's shape and dynamics suggested that they had the piece right under their fingers.
In Debussy's Jeux, Elder drew playing of tremendous finesse, creating a mesmeric atmosphere and subtle illumination of texture from the composer's palette. It was a beautiful performance, concise yet subtly complex.
After that, the "Music-Hall Scene" from Shostakovich's ballet The Golden Age came across as terribly hollow. The tap-dance, tango, cancan and "decadent" Western dances on which it relies sounded lacklustre, while its musical humour amounted to little. What was probably planned as a rip-roaring evening sank a bit flat.
The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 28 MarchReuse content