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Live / stage review

Manchester Camerata: New York City showcase blends disco, country and classical music in one spellbinding evening

The Manchester Camerata pay awe-inspiring homage to three East Coast legends.

24 February 2022 at
20220224 211143
Nick Potter.

Arthur Russell, Phillip Glass and Julius Eastman are three artists linked by their visionary approaches to creating music. There are also other bonding factors: New York in the eighties, fierce work ethics, independent mindsets and, in the case of Eastman and Russell, the sad truth that neither found widespread fame or recognition for their music in their lifetimes. It’s therefore a privilege to hear a snapshot of these artists' works being performed live by the Manchester Camerata in the Edwardian surroundings of Firth Hall.

The string quartet’s performance of Glass’s ‘String Quartet No.4’ is astounding. Split into three movements, the composition is a memorial to artist Brian Buczak who, like Russell, died of HIV-related complications. The harmonised, rhythmic motifs shift, float, weave and overlap, like an incredible tapestry forming before your eyes.

The selection of Arthur Russell’s work showcases his ability to blend the worlds of disco, country and experimental composition. They can be tender, heartbreaking, funny, serious, trivial and utterly beautiful. The strained and slightly atonal sounds of the cello on ‘Ballad of the Lights’, ‘Let’s Go Swimming’ and ‘She’s the Star’ are equal parts captivating and haunting.

The beauty of the playing highlights how songs like ‘You Are My Love’ and ‘Sharper Eyes’ could (and should) belong in the great American pop canon, sitting alongside Brian Wilson and Randy Newman.

The performance of ‘That’s Us / Wild Combination’ – Russell’s magnum opus – is pure joy. Vocalists Alice Zawadzki and Ben P. Williams brilliantly convey the range of emotion in Russell’s work, switching between strained howls and softly sung odes with ease.

‘Joy Boy’ is the only composition by Eastman to be performed. Led by Alice Zawadzki on violin and vocals, a single stuttering and jittery note dissolves into a soothing drone over the course of around seven minutes. It is a spellbinding experience, as is the entire evening.

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