Review: Psappha @ Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester

Psappha performed the moving pieces Rave, Steelworks and Penelope to a dazzled crowd at Hallé St Peter’s in Manchester.

Classical concerts may not be everyone’s forte, not by any stretch, but music has a way of stimulating an emotional reaction no matter how expertly one understands the theme.

Psappha’s contemporary classical portrayal of Penelope, their headline piece on this night, explored just that.

Composed by Sarah Kirkland Snider, the story tells of a woman’s husband appearing at her door following a 20-year absence. Returning a shadow of the man he once was, the pair wrestle to recover what they both once knew – at least according to the programme and lyric sheets.

Watching on as a mesmerised spectator though, I was more captivated by the simplicity of the scene and the emotional transitions the music takes you through, without any necessary background understanding of the story.

The harmony between the viola and violin, the cello, clarinet, French horn, drum kit and percussion is joyous even with eyes wide shut, simply allowing the music to transport you somewhere else.

And despite his central involvement in the themes of the piece, the distinguished conductor Richard Balcombe, also said that music has no definitive way of making its audience feel.

He said: “That’s what music is all about – taking you to another place. Classic music, pop music, no matter what you listen to, it’s about opening a different door and finding a different angle.”

MOVING: The music takes you on a journey

Psappha’s artistic director and percussionist Tim Williams echoed the sentiments of the ensemble’s conductor.

“It’s not about coming with a knowledge at all. It’s just like if you were to turn on the radio, I don’t think you’re meant to come with preconceived ideas,” he added.

Nevertheless, there is a story within and on closer inspection it’s a sensitively sad tale with the themes of memory and what it means to come home marvellously presented.

Lead vocalist Jessica Walker wonderfully tells the tale of the woman’s journey into her partner’s past by reading sections of The Odyssey and finding a way into his memory in a reflective manner.

The rest of the ensemble melodically combines with the violin and viola collaboration, proving a particular highlight in both arco and pizzicato forms.

The tone of the piece is set from the title of the first song, The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved, merging the feelings of frustration and pleasure at seeing her husband.

The void in the woman’s life that her husband’s absence has created, despite his return, is explored with the lyrics ‘You’re a man who told me you loved me.  Do you remember? Try to remember…’ and are brought to life with her constant struggles to urge conversation.

The North of England’s only stand-alone professional contemporary classical ensemble ends with the idea of her husband’s stories ‘telling themselves, backwards and forwards like the tide,’ implying that there may be room for progress in their fatigued relationship.

Nonetheless, there is nothing wrong with the visual aids and this masterclass of musical engineering is certainly aided by the accompanying notes, also proving useful during the night’s impressive first two pieces: Molly Joyce’s Rave and Anna Clyne’s Steelworks.

IMAGINATIVE: Penelope is must-watch and must-listen

Balcombe, firmly established as one of the most versatile musicians of his generation after having been involved in the business for many decades, believes these acts – particularly Penelope – could change the dissuaded view of those who think classical music is only for the elite.

He explained: “A lot of people get frightened off by classical music because it appears to be highbrow. So to listen to contemporary classical is even harder because you don’t have the grounding in classical and don’t have grip of what composers are trying to do.

“But for someone trying to get into this world, it [Penelope] may be a way in because it’s lyrical, folksy, easy on the ear. Nothing really grates and when the grooves get going it’s quite fun.”

Whether, like me, you’re attracted by the emotive quality of each majestic musical harmony, or, if the imaginative expression of a story weaved throughout is more your flavour, Psappha’s adaptation of Penelope proves a must-watch and must-listen.

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