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BBC Philharmonic at Bridgewater Hall

Sarah Tierney is educated and exhilarated by her first classical music concert

Published on January 27th 2009.

BBC Philharmonic at Bridgewater Hall

Along with basic history, classical music was a subject almost entirely absent from the curriculum at my 1980s comprehensive school. It's probably why I've never really got what it's all about, and have spent much of my life avoiding it.

Judging from the average age of the audience at last Saturday's concert by the BBC Philharmonic at the Bridgewater Hall, there's a lot of people out there like me. Most of the concert-goers were in the over-50s category, with the younger generations underrepresented.

Classical music is seen as inaccessible by many – not just because we weren't taught it at school, but because, unlike pop and its many variants, it's not something you can easily 'join in' with. It’s difficult to start up your own string quartet in your friend's garage unless you have a small trust fund to pay for years of tuition. There are no lyrics to analyse, plot to follow, or characters to identify with – certainly not in the form of teen idols. And when you go to an orchestral recital, you can't dance, whoop, or sing along to the hits.

Instead, you just sit quietly and listen. And that's when you realise what an absolute pleasure 'non participation' can be.

We were seated in the centre of the Circle at Saturday's concert. According to my friend's father (a classical music aficionado who came along to compensate for my ignorance), the sheer size of the BBC Philharmonic is quite something compared to other ensembles. He explained that part of the thrill of classical concerts is the scale of it: rather than four people shuffling around with their instruments on the stage, there is a hundred of them – all experts who have been training for years to get to this standard.

The size of the orchestra, the din as the musicians tuned their instruments, the entrance by conductor Ludovic Morlot – all created a sense of occasion and excitement which wasn't misplaced. The concert began with a dramatic early work by Russian composer Stravinsky: Fireworks. Composed in 1908, this was an energetic, invigorating piece. Being only five minutes long, it was the perfect introduction for someone with the limited attention span of the pop music fan.

Next up was Night's Black Bird by contemporary composer Harrison Birtwistle. I liked this; it sounded like the soundtrack to a very tense horror film, one probably involving someone being stalked through a forest under a full moon. I could hear distant church bells, footsteps, a ghostly knocking. The notes clashed and startled and built up into a terrific finale, before ending on several seconds of stunned silence – the audience as stock-still as the orchestra.

My friend enjoyed Birtwistle too, but her father preferred the next piece: Mozart's Piano Concerto No.27, and we put the difference in opinion down to his more mature, developed tastes. Birtwistle's piece was discordant and surprising, whereas Mozart's was harmonious and controlled. It was played by acclaimed pianist Paul Lewis, who cut a very unassuming figure as he took his seat at the huge grand piano. But he was amazing. Witnessing a performer at the top of their profession is enthralling whether you're an admirer of their art form or not.

After the interval we heard La Péri – a ballet by Dukas, and La Valse – a waltz by Ravel. The first was beautiful, the second was bizarre. If I'd read the programme notes beforehand, I would have learned it was, in the composer's words, 'a kind of apotheosis of the waltz' – one that seemed designed to dance the participants to an early death.

Although the programme wasn't designed as an introduction to classical music, I felt like I'd been educated by the experience; the composers ranged from eighteenth century to twenty-first century and hinted at the riches that await a new fan. Along with gardening, classical music was something I was planning to get into in later life. After the concert on Saturday, I'll be looking into it a lot sooner.


Manchester Confidential readers can get two for one tickets to see the BBC Philharmonic at The Bridgewater Hall. Single ticket prices range between £9 and £31. Click here for details.

Forthcoming concerts:

Bruckner: Symphony No.8. Saturday 7 February, 7pm.

Great Russians – Prokofiev's Symphony No.5 and Romeo and Juliet (excerpts). Friday 20 February, 7pm.

Piano 2009 – Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue and Piano Concerto in F Major, and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Sunday 1 March, 7pm.

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MozartJanuary 27th 2009.

Great article, I really enjoy the BBC concerts and will definately be taking advantage of this offer. Thanks.

Lavinia lancasterJanuary 27th 2009.

All very commendable to finally have a go at promoting classical music on this site, but why on earth couldn't you have chosen to go to a concert given by Manchester's very own symphony orchestra and rated #1 in UK right now, the Halle? I am simply amazed at this oversight. the Halle are not only fabulous to hear and see, but a home grown band, the OLDEST symphony orchestra in the UK and have just celebrated their 150th season. Slight oversight there I think... (or could it be that because they don't advertise on ManCon they get overlooked??..). Come on Man Con - just because someone doesn't pay you money to advertise doesn't mean they don't deserve a mention!!!

OrigenJanuary 27th 2009.

With Gianandrea Noseda in charge of the BBC Philharmonic and Sir Mark Elder at the Halle, its something of a golden era for classical music in Manchester at the moment, so enjoy it while you can. Even Liverpool are getting in on the act with the dashing Vassily Petrenko and the RLPO offering a more credible challenge to Manchester hegemony than their unfortunate football teams ever will...

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