In terms of the room’s demographic, though, I certainly feel pretty young andalternative music does feel like much more of a comfort zone. But this shouldn’t read asbad as all that.
After all, attempts were made to ween me on the more refined stuff from an early age,and it didn’t completely fall on deaf ears. And so, with Manchester International Festival reawakening my appreciation for many different forms of culture, I excitedly take to myseat at a fit-to-bursting Manchester Art Gallery for an intimate night of JohannSebastian Bach.
“Art gallery?” I think to myself. It feels more like I’m Number 6 and Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova is Number 2. So who’s Number 1, then? Still, no one knows.. I makemyself comfortable and simply gawp at my surroundings. The set, designed by theworld-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects team, swoops about and envelops the audience, its white fabrics offsetting the blackness of the room. Made from a single, careeningcanvas ribbon that wraps itself around both the stage and a neat grid of futuristic blackchairs, it feels like I’m caught in a snapshot of swirling, colliding ship sails.
It’s hard to put a finger on the set’s artistic and stylistic origins. Modernism?Post-modernism? Deconstructivism? Futurism? There is a feeling of fluidity and of acontrolled chaos. The mood is both still and close-to-overwhelming. The chamber, like themusic it hosts, is meant to challenge, inspire and enchant. A little different from myusual territory of student unions and beer-swilling punters, then.
At times, it feels like I’m playing a bit-part in a particularly surreal moment from aKubrick film, which purposefully juxtaposes the modern with the classical. And then, I canalmost imagine Jean-Luc Picard switching the room on with a touch of a button, beforesettling down, cross-legged, for a moment’s respite from Enterprise duties. He’d havecertainly enjoyed what came next.
Alina Ibragimova enters the stage wearing a beautiful, long black gown. Her tall,slender figure hardly fills the dress as she addresses the audience with a half-smile and aflick of her pulled-back blonde hair. My admittedly unsophisticated attire is, thankfully,balanced by Ibragimova’s simple and beautiful elegance. The interval separates the nightinto two moods. Before the break, Ibragimova plays Sonata No. 2 in A minor and Partita No.2 in D minor. She plays expertly.
The long and famously complex ciaconna movement is played with remarkable precision.Ibragimova’s mesmerising arpeggios are semi-hypnotic; its a challenge to pull my gaze awayfrom her blurring fingers as they unerringly negotiate the fingerboard of a 1738 PietroGuarneri of Venice violin.
Both design and performance are the night’s likeliest plaudit winners, and with goodreason. Yet ironically, it is the space’s sound that will remain largely unsung. Perhaps itis because the acoustics are of such precise quality – balancing the need for atmosphericreverberation and the correct amount of absorption – that this audience is unlikely tothink of their importance.
But this is the kind of night that dazzles on all fronts, as a fortunate audience enjoysthe second half’s Sonata No. 3 in C major and Partita No. 3 in E major. The former’s slowand peaceful adagio opening, which gradually stacks notes together, is still considered oneof the most important landmarks for violin technique. It is a pleasure to hear it playedwith such devotion and in such a devoted environment.
While I’ll be lucky to experience music in such an extraordinary setting again, I won’tbe afraid to break out of my comfort zone and remind myself of the power and significanceof music, as it was. And I imagine the organisers of Manchester’s International Festival mightbe quite pleased with that.