Magazine article The Spectator

Birthday Tribute

Magazine article The Spectator

Birthday Tribute

Article excerpt

After nearly a week I'm beginning to understand the lay-out of this mega-maniac hotel, a redbrick and terracotta masterpiece by Alfred Waterhouse built originally as head offices for Refuge Assurance, now converted with uneasy opulence as a refuge for well-heeled transients. Each storey is differently colour-coded with millions of unfadeable encaustic tiles, but this doesn't really assist orientation. Any exploratory divergence from the long route to reception takes one somewhere unfamiliar - up, to dormer areas closely encountering fantastic chimney stacks, secret turrets and belvederes, clustering about the main tower, almost Gaudi-like in its brazen extravagance; or down, to unknown regions, where an unlocked door can reveal a boardroom or ballroom with capacity for 1,000 shareholders, or voluminous kitchens. Desperate to escape, one eventually bursts through alarmed fire-exits to emerge amidst the dustbins at street-level and has to trail without compass by alleys and railway arches above a lurking little black river to locate the palatial main frontage somewhere quite different.

This is throbbing, pulsating central Manchester, where I'm temporarily poised to mark my 60th birthday. Fortified by hefty Victorian breakfasts, I then hurry each day along Oxford Road to the BBC or the Royal Northern College of Music to fulfil a tight schedule of meetings, classes, rehearsals, concerts, lubricated by copious draughts of strong local bitter. Such schedules are usually described as 'punishing'. The better word would be 'rewarding', for this well-filled week of performances, covering my output in all its aspects except operatic and choral over some 30 years' worth of production (the latest, a string quartet completed only a month ago), is analogous in its way to the city's purposeful industrial nature. No sleepy cow-and-gate English pastoral here! More like satanic mills; building with fiery sword in hand a fierce florid habitation within whose massy walls lie secrets domestic, amorous, nostalgic, hilarious, delicious, wistful, sad.

I'm overwhelmed by the calibre and commitment of the students and their teachers. The brass band at the Royal Northern, outstandingly well-disciplined without eschewing that golden multi-voiced tone unique to this medium; their big wind band (strengthened with double basses and crowned with percussion); and their prodigies of stamina in a taxing, serious display-piece some 25 minutes long, telling a complex, even labyrinthine tale that never for a second lost the plot. And the small mixed ensemble dedicated to contemporary music gave their ambitious programme with relish and delight - the two 'celeste concertos', Oliver Knussen's Ophelia Dances and my Evening with Angels, sparkled, twinkled, planged, seared and sang as well as I've ever heard them. …

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