The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
Sir Mark Elder
Note the absence of the word ‘orchestra’. The Hallé is more than that. It started life as a multifaceted concerts society and is currently a family comprising four choirs, two symphony orchestras and thousands of cheerleaders. If plans are approved, it might soon include a school. Improvement was at the heart of the institution Charles Hallé founded in hard-working Victorian Manchester. A century-and-a-half later, it’s hard to think of anything other than football that expresses civic cohesion in this city quite like the Hallé does.
The Hallé’s ‘adult’ symphony orchestra has been associated with 20th-century boom-and-bust, but its significance in British music life is hard to overstate. It introduced the world to Elgar’s First Symphony, Mahler’s Das klagende Lied and Thomas Adès’s These Premises are Alarmed. It generated one of the greatest orchestra-conductor partnerships in history, when John Barbirolli inherited a band of 30 players from Hans Richter and created a delectable orchestra over 27 years. More recently, it kick-started a pan-European trend that suggests Wagner’s Ring is the ultimate test for a symphony orchestra as much as for an opera company.
The Hallé’s recent history pivots on the year 1996, when it moved from Manchester’s dowdy Free Trade Hall to its industrial-chic Bridgewater Hall. It wasn’t the honeymoon it should have been. The orchestra faced bankruptcy and its relationship with music director Kent Nagano bordered on the dysfunctional. Rehearsing Elgar as a guest conductor, Mark Elder encountered a bruised ensemble that gave him ‘competence but not much more.’ He sensed an opportunity, and was appointed music director from 2000.
Elder started by ‘cleaning up’ repertoire works, not least by the orchestra’s beloved Elgar. By 2002 he was conducting chunks of Wagner operas and the next year launched the orchestra’s in-house record label with the Enigma Variations. The label, a perfect complement to the orchestra’s legacy recordings with Barbirolli, has given us four complete Wagner operas, world premieres and a wealth of underexposed British repertoire. It has embraced the choirs that were part of Charles Hallé’s blueprint. One such release, of the 2014 annual Christmas concert, somehow communicates the idea of audiences, volunteer singers and professional instrumentalists staking equal ownership to a priceless tradition.
For all the affection, Manchester expects excellence. Elder and a string of associated conductors have honed it. The Hallé’s sound retains a certain serrated edge that might be indigenous to the north of England. Add to that mellow nobility, operatic sensitivity and notable clarity instilled by a conductor for whom elegance is all.
Listen to our special playlist on Qobuz: The Hallé