Had everything gone according to plan, Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra would be in the National Concert Hall next Tuesday (June 2) under Sir Mark Elder, its principal conductor since 2000. The concert promised an interesting Franco-Russian mix with Ravel surrounded by Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. I was looking forward to it, as the Hallé’s visits, despite the orchestra’s proximity to us, are relatively infrequent.
The Hallé’s first concert in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall was on January 30, 1858. There had been a small orchestra there beforehand that played for what was called, Gentlemen’s Concerts, directed by German-born Sir Charles Hallé. However, with the opening of the ‘Exhibition of the Art Treasures of Great Britain’ in May 1857 it was decided to expand the ensemble for the prestigious occasion.
Pleased with how things went, Hallé continued his concerts until the following October after which he organised a ‘series’ at his own expense.
As these proved popular, the conductor put the orchestra on a more professional footing. Financial difficulties soon presented themselves but Hallé’s pertinacity remained unshaken and, with donations, kept the orchestra together. He remained in charge until his death in 1895.
During his time in Manchester, Hallé raised the standard of the orchestra’s playing and expanded its repertoire considerably introducing, what was then, new music by Berlioz, Brahms, Dvorák and Wagner.
Hallé brought his orchestra to Dublin initially on October 26, 1878, giving two concerts – afternoon and evening – at the Great Exhibition Palace, now the NCH. The first included Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and his Emperor Concerto with Hallé as soloist.
The second concert had Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and movements from Vieuxtemps’ E major Violin Concerto and Spohr’s Concerto Dramatico, played by Hallé’s wife, Wilhelmine Norman-Neruda. The performances drew unstinted praise but audiences were small due, it was said, to the lack of vocal items on the programmes.
Among eminent conductors after Hallé came another German – Hans Richter – who held the reins from 1899 for 12 years. Revered in Vienna and having a penchant for Wagner, Richter conducted the first complete Ring cycle in Bayreuth in 1876.
In England, he became a whole-hearted admirer of Elgar, directing the premières of his Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius. Poor eyesight meant him invariably conducting from memory but, like Hallé, he ensured the orchestra’s playing achieved a particularly high standard.
In 1943 London-born John Barbirolli, then with the New York Philharmonic, was asked to take charge in Manchester. Accepting the invitation, he remained at the Hallé’s helm for 27 years.
During his tenure he took the orchestra to Ireland on several occasions and formed a close liaison with Our Lady’s Choral Society. Barbirolli conducted the first performance here of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. For the substantial piece, he combined the Hallé and RÉSO together with OLCS in the Theatre Royal in June 1959. The Irish Times called it “a wonderful and soul-searching event”. I was there.
Over the years a number of Irish musicians has graced the Hallé’s ranks but none more distinguished than the doyenne of our artists – harpist Síle Larchet-Cuthbert.