Grevel Lindop

Poet, biographer, critic, essayist and writer on just about everything

A Cuban Poet in Manchester: Victor Rodriguez Nuñez (and of course The Smiths)

Victor and Kate enjoy a drink at Manchester's Cuba Cafe

Spent many happy hours this week with my friends Victor and Kate. Victor Rodriguez Nuñez is a leading Cuban poet, and his wife Kate Hedeen is a gifted translator of Latin American poetry.

 

Victor was here for the Manchester International Literature festival last autumn, and liked it so much that he wanted to show Kate around. Plus, Kate is a huge fan of The Smiths, who provided the soundtrack to her early life in Portland, Oregon. So naturally we had to take the Smiths Tour of Manchester, expertly provided by Craig of Manchester Music Tours.

Kate and Craig: a visit to the Shrine!

We had a wonderful morning exploring everything from the Free Trade Hall to the Salford Lads’ Club and the famous Iron Bridge of the song. Craig was a fine, friendly guide (as well as being drummer with the renowned Inspiral Carpets) and we came away fully educated about Morrissey, the Smiths and the whole Manchester music scene.

We also enjoyed a few other quintessentially Mancunian delights – dinner at Mr Thomas’s Chop House, drinks at the Peveril of the Peak pub, and (of course) I couldn’t resist taking Victor and Kate on Friday night up to the amazing Cuba Cafe, in Port Street, Manchester’s small but glittering Cuban bar and club, where we had a couple of Cuba Libres made with real Havana Club rum and watched one of Michal’s excellent bachata classes. I must get along there and improve my bachata dancing next week.

 

The famous Iron Bridge: to think I drove past it every day and never knew...

 

Kate paid Manchester what I take to be the ultimate compliment, saying that to her it felt like a Latin American city – gritty but friendly, hugely mixed and cosmopolitan, creative and non-touristy. A thoroughly happy few days with two close friends who are also great literary artists and a link back to my beloved Cuba. They’ve gone now but they’ll definitely be back for more. I miss them already.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chorlton’s Rock’n’Roll History

Sister Rosetta, pioneer of rock'n'roll

BBC4 continues to put out some of the best music programmes on any channel. But last Friday’s offering, ‘Godmother of Rock’n’Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe’ was one of the all-time greats.

Sister Rosetta, who started as a 1930s Gospel singer from the USA’s deep South, graduated by way of nightclub singing at the Cotton Club and touring work as a jazz, blues and gospel soloist, to being a pioneer of Rock’n’Roll and one of the all-time great figures. yet she’s been almost forgotten.

Listening to her wonderfully percussive guitar style you could hear at once how much Chuck Berry learned from her; and the archive footage of her hugely energetic performances, full of movement, power and infectious delight, made it quite clear that she was a – if not the – key figure in the transition from Black gospel music to Rock. Popular music history needs to be rewritten to put this lady at the centre!

But the most amazing thing for me was to learn that, when her career (like that of many blues musicians in the US) had stalled in the early ’60s, she was invited to the UK by Chris Barber of all people – and that Granada TV invited her to perform at the disused Chorlton-cum-Hardy railway station about five minutes from where I live in Manchester. Just take a look at the clips! And more important, listen!

The rationale was something to do with freight trains and all that – the vague mythology of train tracks and the Blues. Whatever. Granada decked the old station out as a kind of Wild West scene, with a fake ‘Chorltonville’ sign which they must have thought sounded American. They put the band on one platform and the audience on the other, and delivered Sister Rosetta in a horse-drawn carriage. The horse is a typical piebald cob – a ‘gypsy horse’ of the kind you can see by the hundred at Appleby Fair every year. Her affection for the horse is typical of this immensely sweet and loving woman who seems to radiate kindness and warmth with every ounce of her being. Good to know, then, that the UK tour put Sister Rosetta back on the map and she remained a big star in Europe at least until her death.

We all knew Chorlton was special (Quentin Crisp died here, Badly Drawn Boy lives here, and of course it’s full of wonderful creative people) – but now we know it has a place in Rock’n’Roll history too. The station is about to reopen as a Metrolink stop. Maybe there ought to be a blue plaque on that platform.

Halle Delivers Matchless Mahler 2

Mahler’s Second was bound to be a make-or-break point in the unfolding ‘Mahler in Manchester’ project. The Halle and BBC Philharmonic are playing all ten of the symphonies this year to mark the Mahler centenary, and this was the first of the really big ones.

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler

A couple of weeks ago the BBC Philharmonic gave a lovely performance of No. 1, but it didn’t actually fire me up. I found myself wondering whether maybe I’d just heard it too many times. Or is it that it’s a young man’s piece and sadly it doesn’t quite resonate with me as it used to? I’m sure the fault was mine.

On Thursday, though, there were no such doubts. This was a real, transcendent experience, with everything you could look for: clarity, dynamics, amazing textures, lyrical passion. And, incidentally, a capacity audience. The Bridgewater Hall was full and the atmosphere was charged.

The Second has maybe the most electrifying of all Mahler’s openings: an intense vibrating note on all the upper strings that just rivets your attention until the grumbling, growling basses and cellos start to enter and the whole thing begins to gather momentum like some colossal machine or mountain avalanche. Fascinating and terrifying.

And the melodies! Mahler has an unbelievable fertility in generating one gorgeous tune after another. The melodies just seem to flow out of him: eeerie little folksongs, huge chunky rhythmic patterns reminiscent of Brahms or Beethoven, catchy dance tunes, marches, rhapsodic romantic syrup, postmodern hair-raising discord-patterns, you name it.

And then he collages and interweaves and overlaps all of this to produce amazing drama – changes of mood, gradual revelations, mystical ecstasy, frightening shocks. It’s all there, and the result is a sound-drama (or movie if you like) that has the range of an epic yet keeps you engaged as if he were writing the soundtrack to your most intimate thoughts.

Speaking of which, I discovered Mahler when I was still at school, on my father’s LP records, and then by luck shared rooms at University with a music student, the conductor Peter Lawson, who was a Mahler fanatic. So I got soaked in the music for a whole year and it went somewhere very deep inside. And while other kinds of music have set the pace of my life at different times – the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, JJ Cale, Mingus, Parker, Coltrane, Bach, Stravinsky, and for the past few years Salsa in particular, underneath it all Mahler has never gone away. I find myself singing snatches of his music at the oddest moments. It’s like part of my DNA.

Thursday’s performance absolutely lived up to all of this. Markus Stenz took the first movement at a relaxed tempo but he kept it moving with a steady relentless pulse and there wasn’t a slack or dull moment. The momentum was maintained throughout the symphony and there was a clarity and precision at every point that gave the sense of an orchestra absolutely involved and attentive. The dynamics were interesting too. Stenz, who seemed to be enjoying himself immensely throughout, brought the harps right up, something I enjoyed because it emphasised one of Mahler’s strangest and most delightful textures.

Susan Gritton (soprano) and Katarina Karneus (mezzo) melted into the heart-stoppingly beautiful lyrics of the last movement with crystalline beauty as well as solid volume. The whole thing was so perfect and felt so natural that the symphony as a whole felt more like a geological or spiritual phenomenon – two things that aren’t so far apart for Mahler – than a human composition.

The colossal surges of sound and energy in the finale rolled over us with a huge unanswerable impact. This was Mahler the visionary, experiencing an apocalyptic resolution – maybe a highly unorthdox Day of Judgment, or maybe all beings finally revealing their Buddha-nature. As he wrote, ‘there are no sinners, no just. None is great, none small. There is no punishment and no reward. An overwhelming love illuminates our being.’ I’ll put in a clip of another superb performance – Rattle/CBSO – at the end of this post, so you can get a glimpse of what it’s all about.

I had tears in my eyes at the end – something I don’t recall from previous performances. Half of the audience got to their feet during the applause, and I don’t know why the other half didn’t do the same. I never expect to hear a better performance of the symphony, and I’m grateful to have been present for that one. I don’t want to intensify the competition for tickets, which are going fast or already gone, but if you haven’t yet booked, I would suggest that you think about trying to hear some of the eight symphonies that remain. I couldn’t get to The Song of the Earth on Saturday, sadly, but I’m hoping to hear number 3 on 13 February. I probably won’t bother you with my amateurish comments on it. But if Thursday is any indication, this Mahler season is going to be unforgettable.