A display of eclectic virtuosity and versatility opened the first ever Manchester Guitar Festival at the Stoller Hall. Acclaimed Scottish guitarist Sean Shibe took the stage - and shook the audience - with an exciting programme of classical and adventurous contemporary music.
And one of the most stunning performances was a piece originally written for bagpipes which Shibe, born in Edinburgh of English and Japanese heritage, has arranged for electric guitar.
The three-day festival, aimed at showcasing the extraordinary range of a humble and familiar instrument, included workshops, talks and pop-up performances from established and newly emerging musical talent.
Shibe, one of the foremost guitarists of his generation, playing acoustic guitar in the first half, took us through a Scottish lute variation, followed by Bach’s delicate Suite in E Minor, demonstrating the piquancy and the spice of the piece.
Then he did a Bob Dylan for the second half, switching to electric guitar, initially for the sublime O Sacrum Convivium by Olivier Messiaen, the usually-sung motet for a chorus of four mixed voices.
But then, lest we be lulled into the calm of an earlier era, Shibe shook us, firstly with Steve Reich’s experimental 20th century Electric Counterpoint. There followed a hint of a warning: “Some of you are sitting rather close to the front…”. What was to come, said Shibe, was a funereal wail, “slightly” terrifying and overwhelming: LAD by Julia Wolfe.
Wolfe’s own biography notes that her music is distinguished by “an intense physicality and a relentless power that pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from the audience. She draws inspiration from folk, classical, and rock genres, bringing a modern sensibility to each while simultaneously tearing down the walls between them.”
The piece was written for nine bagpipes, and Shibe replicated them all, single-handedly. It was a near-psychedelic experience. One either loves or hates the pipes, no one is indifferent. As one of the former, I once sat in the St John’s hall listening to the full ensemble of the Accrington Pipe Band in rehearsal, and even I was shaken by the volume of this.
And by the genius that insists you can hear the drone and hum of circular breath, as these strings reach a crescendo, never quite masking the melody that lies beneath. We left the hall breathless.
So who is this remarkable, reserved young guitarist? Shibe, who studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and with Paulo Pegoraro in Italy, was the first guitarist to beselected for the BBC New Generation Artists scheme. He was also the first guitarist to receive the Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Young Artists, and has won many awards since then.
He was performing here to an audience both familiar with and new to this stunning concert hall. The Stoller Hall was opened five years ago, built into the frame of the new Chethams’s School of Music building, and has quickly become an important addition to the world-class musical venues of Manchester.
It’s a complex acoustically isolated ‘box within a box’ retro-fitted into the school. A steel structure supports the concert hall, technical loft and basement floor, all ‘suspended’ within the self-weighted structure which sits on tuned acoustic mounts. The hall has a 482-seat capacity including a choir gallery and balcony, and the main performance stage has a two-stage riser, which allows flexibility to expand either the performance stage, or the stalls seating provision, to suit the requirements of differing events.
It’s awe-inspiring to see; and a fitting venue for what promises to be an exciting new annual festival.