I have spent many a Sunday in a Catholic Mass, and one or two other denominations when the Cubs walking day ended in unfamiliar territory. Never did Mass of any type bring the intensity that was to be found in the Bridgewater Hall this freezing Sunday in March. Billed as an epic celebration, that barely does credit to what was the most phenomenal religious experience I can remember having since Wigan won the FA cup with an 90th minute winner. To experience that Wembley elation I had to spend decades of trials and tribulations, to learn pain and pleasure in a collective, an education of a lifetime that led to a glorious crescendo and subsequent collapse.
As we bounced out of the Bridgewater Hall as a newly converted congregation of zealots we felt that wallop of total conversion in just two hours. Converted to what, I was not quite sure, but it was pure and beautiful, like sizzling atoms whipped about the body and soul in ways beyond easy comparison to fleshy experience. Life, that was what was glorified, made red and gold in a hotchpotch of raucous anarchistic joy intermingled with deep soulful renditions of those tensions of psalm and bible. A life affirmed, in ways I could not grasp at so I just let go and simply felt it. In awe, not shock. Every reservation of being in this otherworld cathedral, a short time before I had been so anxious about entering, blasted away.
There was story to this, a narrative in its creation and in its purpose. A history of Jackie Kennedy commissioning Leonard Bernstein to create a monumental opening to the JFK Dramatic Arts Centre. Of the names and lives of those biblical in scale and impact, resonating now in this northern arena. The story itself one of conflict and coming together, of collapse and renovation. It was all there on stage but it would be a false claim to say I was at any point carried along by this as a story. The Latin elements as distant in this as were my past experiences in churches where ignorance was soothed by well drilled rote responses of kneeling, standing, repeating the right phrase at the right time. Nothing about this scintillating musical universe welcomed a well-trodden response.
Part of the marvel of the ancient cathedral builders came in the ability to construct in stone and marble the triggers to a deeper self that left the body and found the heavenly. Here, architecture was crowd and sound. Combined to bring to the physical sensations that, like that first orange farmer wandering into the Seville Cathedral, transported to a deeper purpose that the body understood when the mind could not.
What I was aware of was a growing deeper, a new understanding of the power of collective brilliance. The whole event was a celebration of five decades of the Royal Northern College of Music, supported by singers from Chetham’s School of Music. Each in their own way a million miles from my experiences at a Further Education College. Yet here there was nothing but a union of their work, that echo of Bernstein’s own brilliance written not quite two years before the opening of the RNCM. A union that made me revel in those attempts we make to take the expectations of our own worlds and make it bigger technicoloured, iridescent with hope and optimism.
The plan ahead for the RNCM, a wheel of Students, Music, Society, I had felt already before I read their vision. Yes, I had gingerly stepped into that hall in ways I would not if it was somewhere I felt I belonged. Yes, that is a legacy of my working-class trepidation in what I thought would be another world to which I did not fit, could be found out. What the performance brought was a massive welcoming surge, a powerful and engaging call to be enveloped here, to be transformed. The sight of 300 or so vocalists, musicians, arranged on a gigantic stage, a wall of noise that was vibrating every atomic layer in ways not felt before.
I was no longer uncertain, trepidation zapped into dust, we were in a world of us now. The priestly baritone, William Dazeley, was a pinnacle amidst the mayhem. His were the travails of the narrative that we could follow if such plot lined sequencing was at any point required, it never was for me. This was a whirlwind, of massive noise and then deep silence. The familiarity of a Catholic Sunday crept in so changed from their usual form that their uncanny strangeness drove any last vestige for controlled understanding to flee.
I wanted everyone I have worked with, taught with, learned with, to be here with me, to feel this shattering sensation that was immediately rebuilt in a new form of some other world. This was history, sound, feeling, hope, togetherness and admiration, It was as if leaving this building, when that time came, would be to enter another world than the one I left just two hours before.
I have been to this venue once before, to see Hacienda Classics. The guest vocalist, Shaun Ryder, was sent off and to be found over the road in The Briton’s Protection with an hour of the performance still to go. The character of that night was familiar, a return to a nostalgia for Manchester nights that had no end. The performance of Mass was something else, something beyond even those nights from thirty-five years ago. Yet it shared a wonder for how we might be in the world. That individuals were there and could be heard, could add something precious, but always as part of the MASS.
Anarchic yet reflective, a wild reverence that took us apart and reassembled through the operatic, the cinematic, the gospel, through jazz and sounds and combinations that challenge any definition beyond that of the spirit, of the body. By the time we were hit with a kazoo chorus, the first of those fuzzy buzzy harmonicas I had heard since last year's picket lines, I was already mesmerised. This was something society did need, I was convinced. This is what they mean by Music, Students, Society. Not as an anaemic line to a corporate mission statement. A call to action that only through experience can we know what it means. You cannot read about this or simply understand this but you can feel it and you will grow from it.
If only I was here with a handful of my Blackburn students, that these seeds of change were not contained only in me. The sense of being here was an overcoming of trepidation and an introduction to a world of history and of future. It was epic, and that is exactly what we need and seek as every mill town had as many cinemas as they had churches. It is not pure escapism, it is energy that gives us the will to go on and find optimism in darkness. Escape not from action but into it. Those new talents were more tonight than they could be individually, no matter how brilliant they become – and they will become brilliant, they already are.
It was here that we could see the powerful necessity of the cultural pulse of a city. Here investment is not clumsy and financial, it is immediate and far-reaching shining light into darkness that evades easy measurement through certificates and awards. This was an event that bonded and inspired. At times I was elsewhere, not in a self that I recognised, a whooshing intoxication these collected shamanic magicians brought to town. It was not magic, it was work, effort, timed and rehearsed, imagined and made real. The power of this was the detail and the drive to take that gigantic enterprise through to this final performance. A belief it was possible and a revel in the virtual becoming actual through a community of diversity made whole. Bernstein faced challenges of Vietnam and intelligence agencies, of subterfuge, of secret agents, of threats and uncertain worlds influx. In our world of Artificial intelligence, the threat of diminishing human experience, we can find in Bernstein's vision a deeper humanity that cannot be replicated by machine.
The students and musicians, the creators of this massive event shook my world and I hope did so to every soul in that arena. For me, it was a performance that reminded me that the epic is made up of the atomic. I bounced out and the world had changed, I was filled with ideas, of possibilities for my work with others, knowing we are part of frequencies that vibrate across ourselves and into the world.
I would recommend seeing this any chance you get, and that is thing, there are not many opportunities. Fabulous though the mission of RCNM and Chetham's might be, they are tiny and our Society is huge. Every town and community needs the scope to be part of such a movement, to realise the value of intoxication through art and music, of transformation we each play a part in. The brilliance witnessed in the Bridgewater Hall tonight was greater than the sum of its parts; but each part was so carefully developed.
It is a care that we can insist on in all communities and allow the richness of our society to shape new MASS, new masses. Like me, large swathes of the people have never seen a cello closer than I did today, despite knowing and responding to that transcendental sound whenever we hear it. I wondered what could happen if we allowed musical aspiration to stop being celebrated as hairbrushes in mirror and the untutored strums of borrowed guitars for so many of us. We could not all have cellos, the Great Dane of the orchestra, who has room for one in the house, flat, room? We could have schemes where they are borrowed, taught. We do not all have access to venues purpose built like the Bridgewater when our school theatres are too limited. But we do have ingenuity, inventiveness, innovation, creative and opportunistic skills and approaches to space.
As the collected choristers fanned out across the Hall for the crescendo tonight, we can see those webs moving out the door and down streets, into wild venues of market halls and actual churches, of warehouses and mills. The spirit of the rave has made it into Bridgewater Hall, maybe a reciprocal visit might empower even more. The depth and power of an orchestra, of voice and instrument, of composition, staging, drama, performance, of new audiences taking the seeds provided and proliferating in venues still in shadow but desperate for some light.
Thanks to those that gave so much, worked so hard, cared to such a level of detail that they could transform that Sunday night like no other mass has ever done before. I look forward to a future where I can see first time visitors stood alongside me in Accrington Market Hall or Blackburn Daisyfield Mill. When we listen together, experience together, we can dream together and build together. Thanks to everyone involved for the chance to dream.
Header Image: Bridgewater Hall