In their first concert for a live audience in well over a year, the Hallé and conductor Sir Mark Elder performed a joyful and moving programme – and even gave their Bridgewater Hall audience a round of applause.
It wasn’t a surprise that Sir Mark Elder said a few words during the Hallé’s Thursday afternoon concert – it was, after all, their first in front of a non-virtual audience since before the pandemic began. And it wasn’t a surprise either that he paid tribute to the special power of live music. We’ve all been missing that.
But the next thing was unexpected. When the audience burst into applause at his words, Elder interrupted them. “No,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is our turn to clap you.”
And they did. The whole orchestra – an impressively large one given social distancing constraints, spread out onto a stage extension and up into the choir seats – rose to their feet and applauded the audience, in gratitude for their support over the past year.
It was a heartfelt and touching gesture, for sure. But the quality of this first concert back was so high that it really was the musicians, not the audience, who deserved all the applause.
We had had two of the concert’s three pieces by then. The overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila was first, a bustling and excitable explosion of energy, and the band followed that up with Stravinsky’s dazzling Petrushka, in its 1947 version.
Petrushka proved to be an excellent choice. Stravinsky’s score is a box of tricks for the orchestra, packed with brightly hued, memorable moments – near-kitsch woodwind solos, harp flourishes, melodies that brashly overlap with each other – and the Hallé seemed to relish bringing the score to such vivid life in front of an audience once again. Elder kept meticulous control.
Yet for all the finesse of Stravinsky’s score, the most memorable moments were the tuttis – the loudest sections, with the whole orchestra playing as one. It was as if they couldn’t get enough of each other’s company.
If Petrushka was all about the technical brilliance of the orchestra, then Elgar’s Enigma Variations were about its soul. The British composer’s set of variations, each an evocation of a friend of his, is always an emotional affair, but this was an especially heart-on-sleeve rendering, which culminated in a performance of the beloved “Nimrod” variation which had the perfect mixture of overwhelming emotional depth and stiff-upper-lip resilience.
Principal cellist Nicholas Trygstad’s heartfelt solo work in the “B.G.N.” variation was another highlight, but again it was the combined efforts of the orchestra as a whole that made the performance so resonant.
When the audience rose to its feet to applaud the conductor and orchestra at the end, in a sense it felt like a return to normal. But we’d do well to remember how abnormal it is for anything of this quality to happen, ever, and how lucky we are to be able to hear it at all.
The Hallé’s Summer Season continues on 17 June.
Main image: The Hallé and Sir Mark Elder receive a standing ovation on their return to live performance © The Hallé