Over the last two nights I have been lucky enough to see two extraordinary events at the Manchester International Festival. On Wednesday night I headed down to the Pavillion Theatre to see Amadou and Mariam play with The Beating Wing Orchestra then yesterday I was lucky enough to have tickets to watch Manchester greats Elbow and The Halle at the Bridgewater Hall. I will be honest that I find the festival to be an interesting beast. On one hand I think it is amazing that the city has such a bold and high profile festival to put us on the map and make a clear statement about the aspirations that we have to create art that is of a world class level and pushes the boundaries of what art can and should be. On the other hand the festival has struggled to engage local communities in Manchester leaving many people in the City feeling excluded from the event – a challenge that the festival team need to continue tackling in future fesitvals when so much public money is being poured into making the event happen, both from the Arts Council and Manchester City Council.
I also heard an interesting comment from my friend who was up from London last week who said,
“It feels as though there is almost more publicity and buzz about the Festival in London than there is up here in Manchester.”
This is not surprising as the majority of the festival team are based (controvesially) in London for the majortiy of the year and only come up to Manchester in the months around the festival time which inevitably makes it difficult for them to build a real rapport with their local communities. Neither is it a bad thing as I love the idea of people from London getting so excited about work that is happening in Manchester that they actually have to get on a train, go outside the M25 and come up North to be wowed by what our magnificent city has to offer. What interests me about many of the events though is that they could easily happen anywhere else in the world apart from Manchester – and many of them will go on to be repeated in other cities all over the world as Monkey has been since the first festival in 2007. Many of the events in the festival are great cultural events that I am proud to have in Manchester but Rufus Wainwright’s new opera could just as easily be in New York, and probably will be soon enough. It is amazing to have Punchdunk here but is there anything about the show that means it has to be in a Mancunian office block?
What set Elbow and Amadou and Mariam apart for me was the fact that both events were uniquely Mancunian and , for me, made distincitve comments on what the city is and who its residents are. Amadou and Mariam’s backing orchestra, The Beating Wing Orchestra, were formed with the support of Community Arts North West and comprises musicians from Greater Manchester’s Refugee communities and other culturally diverse musicians from the region. The event felt truly like something that could not have happened anywhere else and was perfect reflection of the rich diversity of the city and the creativity and community that has exploded as a result of this.
And Elbow and the Halle? What more can be said about that? The Halle as the first permanent orchestra in a British City and Elbow whose beautiful music and honest and open approach to their work has come to encapsulate the city and the slow burning, self assured creativity that lies at its heart and is key to its identity both locally, nationally and internationally. This event felt like everything that great art should feel like in terms of collaboration, community and identity. As Elbow’s Guy Garvey put it himself;
“This is a lovely, lovely thing.”
From my perspective this kind of event is what the Festival should be all about; forging and supporting partnerships and collaborations that allow creativity and art to soar. In the Elbow / Halle partnership they did this but being there, either in the venue or as part of the live stream that was going on in Castlefield at the same time, it felt like you were part of a moment of cultural history in the making. That all the artists involved were at a pinnacle of excellence that it is rarely possible to scale and that, in being there, you were lucky enough to be a little part of it. It was a celebration of music but it was also a celebration of Manchester and Mancunians and it is a truly a great thing that the International Festival has made it possible for this to happen.