A new organ has just been unveiled in Manchester’s Anglican cathedral. It has a fascinating hidden feature – spiritual texts cut deep into the case, so deep that they actually perforate it – which means that when the organ sounds, it literally speaks through holy words.
Almost as interesting, though, is that the instrument is called the Stoller Organ, named after the Mancunian businessman who paid for it. And he seems to have cornered the market for musical philanthropy in the city, because Stoller is also the name on the new concert hall that opened last week right next door to the cathedral, as part of the specialist music school Chethams.
It’s a mid-sized space, seating 500, and tailor-made to complement Manchester’s larger, symphony-sized Bridgewater Hall. By day it will serve the needs of Chethams pupils. By night it will be the new focus of the city’s chamber music circuit. And although the look of it is dauntingly austere, the sound is wonderful: pin-sharp but forcefully alive and bright in something like the way of Milton Court or Kings Place, London’s new mid-sized halls.
To mark the opening, Chethams organised a weekend celebration that would put the new hall through its paces. And the first event I caught was a recital by the (Manchester-born) Navarra String Quartet. It had such an immaculate eloquence it would be hard to imagine a better advertisement for the acoustic. I’ve heard more searing accounts of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No 5, but never more perfect. And critically, I heard every note, with bloom and clarity: the ideal combination.
A crazily programmed gala concert the next day proved more equivocal. A Chethams school orchestra squeezed onto the platform for selections from William Walton’s Henry V film score and blasted the audience with more than enough noise to beat the French.Acoustic screens were lowered to reduce the resonance, and they did their job – as did the orchestra, which had an average age of maybe 15 but the technical maturity of adults: Chethams is a hothouse for emerging talent.
But the rousing grandeur of this Walton epic proved a challenge for the hall to deal with. It worked better when a smaller band came on, made up from Manchester professionals with Chethams links, conducted by Mark Elder, and with Paul Lewis as a consummately accomplished soloist in Beethoven’s Mozartian-scale Piano Concerto No 2. Clearly the new Stoller Hall is going to be a serious asset for the concert life of Manchester. But those who run it must be careful how they use it.
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