sun 16/06/2024

Hallé, Wong, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - meeting a musical communicator | reviews, news & interviews

Hallé, Wong, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - meeting a musical communicator

Hallé, Wong, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - meeting a musical communicator

Drama and emotional power from a new principal conductor

Big finish: Kahchun Wong conducting the HalléAlex Burns, the Hallé

Kahchun Wong, the Hallé’s principal conductor from the coming autumn season, presided in the Bridgewater Hall for the first time yesterday since the announcement of his appointment.

It was in the last of the four “Rush Hour” concerts recently introduced, which begin at 6pm and are shorter than usual evening programmes, with fairly mainstream classical content and no interval. They seem to be succeeding very well in attracting audiences of all ages.

But this one was a bit special, because Wong had his first chance to conduct the Hallé Choir along with the orchestra. The centrepiece of the menu was Fauré’s Requiem, very much a standard work, but that was framed by two versions of Malcolm Arnold’s Peterloo Overture: first the original for orchestra alone, and at the end by Ben Parry’s version which adds a choral role to it, using words by Sir Tim Rice based on Shelley’s poem, The Masque of Anarchy, itself inspired by “Peterloo” – an arrangement first heard at the Last Night of the Proms in London 10 years ago.

This wasn’t the first time Wong has conducted the Hallé at the Bridgewater Hall, either. I attended his debut with them there in February last year, when he gave a reading of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that was notable not just for dramatic effect but also for the use of tempo change to build emotional power in a way that conductors of a former and perhaps more romantic age found second nature but which is not so often encountered now.

On that occasion he conducted the UK premiere of Sofia Gubaidulina’s The Wrath of God, an 18-minute piece for large orchestra (four Wagner tubas as well as four horns, two bass trombones, two tubas and a lot of percussion), which is about the day of judgment, and very loud a lot of the time, though there are delicately mysterious softer passages, too. There was also Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, wonderfully sung by Ian Bostridge alongside the Hallé’s principal horn, Laurence Rogers – and that, too, had many a dramatic twist.

It's early days yet, even on the strength of two performances, to come to a fair assessment of his powers and potential, but there’s little doubt that Kahchun Wong, who has been a Dudamel Fellow with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and was a protegé of Kurt Masur, is a musical communicator and audience builder.

Kahchun Wong has also been working with this orchestra already, both in recording for the Hallé’s own label (Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas ballet) and conducting them on a tour of Spain in February, and it seems that he’s keen to get his own sound from them, particularly the strings, where the English dolce beloved of Sir Mark Elder can now become something bigger and brasher, perhaps more American. He’s inheriting a wonderful instrument from Elder, of course, and doesn’t hesitate to unleash its full firepower, as the sounding brass and percussion of the Arnold overture demonstrated. It’s a piece that itself gives a hearing to each of the orchestral “choirs” in turn – strings, wood wind and brass – as it tells a programmatic story of what happened – or is believed to have happened – on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in 1819 (panicky magistrates tried to disperse a non-violent political demonstration and sent in the cavalry, resulting in 18 deaths: it’s a part of Manchester’s proud history of free thinking now).

Wong loved the colour and drama of the score and its big finish (it’s almost contemporaneous with Arnold’s tongue-in-cheek A Grand, Grand Overture, written for Gerard Hoffnung, and you can’t help wondering whether the only reason he didn’t include live gunshots in the one was that he was doing it for real in the other). With the choir added the second time round, it was even more splendid, and the day may yet come when it will be necessary for him to take into account the remarkably live acoustic of this particular hall and actually ratchet things down a bit.

Fauré’s Requiem is something different, of course. Or is it? There’s drama to be found there, too, amid the well-known plaintiveness of the Pie Jesu soprano solo and the fluttering angel wings of the In Paradiso. Every musical Requiem setting offers some scope for the evocation of eternity’s frightening prospect, and there was more than a touch of the fear of God struck into this one, in its sudden surging crescendos, its striking colours and flashes of passion.

As an orchestral texture, the full-forces version used on this occasion still bears some of the qualities of the unusual instrumental arrangement with which Fauré first conceived it, and that creates its own problems – well overcome in almost every respect, resting often on the sterling work of Darius Battiwalla at the Bridgewater Hall pipe organ.

Soloist in the Pie Jesus was Mary Bevan, floating serenely above the buzzing mix of violas and cellos, and the eloquent baritone soloist was Ashley Riches, who brought enviable sustaining power to the Offertoire and intense pleading to the Libera Me. The Hallé Choir, rained by Matthew Hamilton and out in full force to meet their new big boss, sang with rich radiance. 

He’s inheriting a wonderful instrument from Elder, of course, and doesn’t hesitate to unleash its full firepower


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters