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Mad for it

As research shows that young people are coming to classical music through film and club music, here‘s an article I wrote in 2018 for ISM Music Journal about the wildly successful Haçienda Classical, which brings together classic House music and the orchestral sound of Manchester Camerata to generate its very own audience

‘Absolutely amazing gig. Brilliant performance from everyone involved. Incredible. Best gig ever!’ ‘The bottom line is, if I could go to see this show every weekend for the next year, I WOULD!! What a sound.’

When an orchestra gets this many exclamation marks in an online review, you know it’s doing something right. You might also guess that it’s not only playing Bruckner and Ligeti. This is the level of excitement generated by Haçienda Classical, the concert experience based on the legendary Haçienda club scene of the 80s and 90s – with the added benefit of a live orchestra. The event was first brought together in February 2016 by DJs Graeme Park and Mike Pickering, Haçienda co-founder Peter Hook and manager Paul Fletcher, conductor and orchestrator Tim Crooks and the Manchester Camerata. In May and June they have gigs in Glasgow, London and Manchester, and more later in the year in Sheffield, London, Edinburgh, Bedfordshire and Leeds.

As is often the case with great innovations, the idea gestated in two different places simultaneously. Bob Riley, Chief Executive of Manchester Camerata recalls: ‘A few years ago we were thinking about where we were going with future audiences and we completely changed our vision. Part of that was saying that we want to be in places where people already are. What would it be like to play in bars, clubs and cathedrals? A natural step from that was to look at it the other way round and ask what it would be like for the bars and clubs to find themselves in a concert hall. That was the germination of an idea.’

Haçienda Classical perform in Manchester Photo: Craige Barker

The classical thing

For Graeme Park and Mike Pickering the idea was born more of frustration. Park explains: ‘When Mike and I were DJing at Haçienda club nights the crowd was getting younger and younger, but the people who had been at the Haçienda wanted to hear the tunes from the 80s and 90s. For a DJ who still works every weekend, it gets tedious playing the same tunes. We kept saying that we needed to do something to keep our original punters happy. Then one night after a club night we sat in a hotel bar and as we were getting into a lift at five in the morning, two musicians got out with their instruments and someone said, “Let’s do the classical thing,” and everyone else went, “Yeah, let’s do the classical thing.’

It was Peter Hook who made the initial match and phonecalls, and one day in August 2015, he, Park, Fletcher, Crooks and Riley met in a café in Wilmslow, Cheshire. They threw around ideas and decided the project could work. Between them Hook and Park then generated a list of 20 tracks, and gave Crooks a mix to score. A few weeks later, Fletcher called to say he’d booked the Bridgewater Hall, leaving them just three months – over Christmas – to prepare.

The debut

There was plenty of work to do organising musicians and rehearsing, but getting an audience wasn’t a problem – it sold out within ten minutes, and inside the Bridgewater Hall, the response was euphoric. Riley remembers: ‘The audience was going crazy, screaming for about 30 minutes before anyone even came on stage. There was an incredible atmosphere and when the band came on the place erupted.’ Park says: ‘We naively thought people would think it was a classical orchestra with Graeme and Mike and a few guests and that they’d come in and sit down. But they didn’t. It was like a wall of sound – I’ve never heard anything like it.’

They did the same show the next week, and were booked for the Royal Albert Hall, ending up with 16 gigs in 2016. Unsurprisingly, there were teething problems initially, mainly with sound. Riley says: ‘It’s got a huge PA system on it and a concert hall wasn’t built for that, so it was tough getting to the point where you’ve got a balance between giving people what they expect but not distorting the sound. When you take that into the Royal Albert Hall or Glastonbury Festival it changes again. It’s about adapting to different environments. The element of partnership has been really critical.’

The live orchestra

The idea of having a live orchestra on club tracks is surprisingly logical. Crooks explains: ‘A lot of house music is based on disco music that was written in the 70s. There were incredible scratch bands of session musicians who recorded so much music brilliantly. You hear a lot of it sampled and put into house music. It was interesting to go back to the originals and think, “Is there anything I can borrow?” In some instances they’re so well written that they’re easy to orchestrate and work very well.’

In this era of digital technology, it might have been easier not to use a live orchestra, as Crooks admits: ‘Logistically it’s a difficult show to move around and by the time we’ve amplified 50 musicians and done all the lights it’s expensive. It’s to the credit of the promoters they go to the expense of using a real orchestra as opposed to a synthetic programmed orchestra, which they could easily do.’

Park explains why it’s worth it: ‘All these early house producers were doing it on their own in a basement, trying to make a lush string section with two fingers on a cheap synth. When you reverse engineer it and score it for a string section you realise they knew what they were doing. Played by live musicians it sounds incredible. The live analogue sound of strings, proper percussion, woodwind and brass knocks people for six. It makes everything sound bigger and bolder than it originally was.’

What is the experience like for the players? Crooks says: ‘It’s no more intensive than a usual day’s work. It’s a lot louder, but everyone plays with in-ear monitoring so the noise is cancelled. The stage is the quietest place because nothing is amplified there – everything goes away from the stage. But there are challenges, such as not being able to hear yourself when you put your finger down high up on the E string, especially if you’ve got both ears plugged in. You’re playing to a click, so it’s more like a recording session.’ Riley says, ‘If you do anything 20 times there are elements you’re going to get bored with, but broadly the players are loving the experience – the music, playing to full houses, performing in major festivals, being in different parts of the country and that Camerata has gained a reputation from doing something like this.’

It’s not about Mozart

It’s tempting to wonder whether any of this massive new constituency has since come to other Camerata concerts, but that misses the point, according to Riley: ‘Some of our patrons are sceptical and ask when they’re coming to Mozart, but my reaction to that is, “Who cares?” The point is that they go to Haçienda because that’s the music they like. That’s fantastic for me because they’re listening to that music with an orchestra. Expecting them to turn up to Beethoven Five is not a realistic expectation. Other patrons are hugely positive about it because they see the orchestra playing to a full house every time and loving it.’

Riley also sees it as part of the organisation’s commitment to the players: ‘Like any commercial project, it’s an important part of Camerata’s financial make-up, and more than that it’s a very important our musicians’ finances. They’re all freelancers, so they rely on us generating work like this. If we didn’t there would be 25 days in their diary when they might not be earning. We’ve got an amazing community of fantastic freelance players in the North West, and it’s one of our obligations to make sure we’re generating enough work to fill their diaries so they can stay amazing.’ He is also thinking strategically: ‘It’s been successful and we’ve been doing more of this than anything else, so there remain questions about how we balance our programme out so there’s enough orchestral acoustic music for the band. We’ll be launching some long-term projects soon that address that balance.’

As the project embarks on its next tour, the future is bright, but may not be infinite. Park says: ‘I said it was going to be a one-off and we’re about to enter a third year with more dates than ever and people are already making enquiries for next year. It’s been a rollercoaster that continues to thrill and excite. I hope it continues, but we’re not going to flog it. It’ll come to a natural end and we’ll know when it’s right to stop.’

What can other organisations learn from Haçienda Classical?

Bob Riley

‘The key thing is not to think of the orchestra primarily. If you do, it probably won’t work. Always think about the audience. That’s one thing we miss in the classical sector. We often think about the maestro, the repertoire, the ‘can we finish by five o’clock’ and forget what we want the audience to feel. These people are constantly thinking about what the audience is going to want to feel and hear, what the experience is. It’s not just the music – it’s the production, the lighting, the lead-up. We can learn a lot from that.

It needs practical thought and consultation. It’s no good if someone can’t see their music because the laser in their eyes. We had a show in November in the Apollo where there were massive beach balls dotting across the top of the audience, and it was brilliant fun, but a couple of them landed on stage and knocked a violinist’s bow of the string. We need to talk about things like that.’

Graeme Park

‘It’s made me, Mike and Peter a lot more disciplined when it comes to rehearsal. People were saying, ‘What do you mean you want to carry on another 20 minutes – we’ve got to break now.’ That took us a while to get used to. In the world of electronic music, when you get a vibe you keep going with it when you rehearse. That’s not a criticism – it was like two worlds colliding.

The first year’s backing track was very complicated because we tried to match as closely as possible the original sound, but it meant we had 60 tracks. So last year we thought let’s not try to copy everything intricately, let’s just make it fairly close, so we ended up 12 tracks instead of 60 tracks and that made the track better.’

Tim Crooks

‘At the moment if orchestras want to initiate a project like this it involves a sizeable up-front investment, so the incentive is always with the promoters who are willing to make the investment and reap the profits. It might work to look at whether there could be a pot of money from the Arts Council where orchestras can apply for a one-off grant. It’s good for an orchestra to own the content of the show, rather than being a hired gun. It will be interesting to see whether orchestras take the initiative and try to produce shows like this over the next few years.’

Audrey Mattis Chorale, gospel choir

This article was first published in the ISM Journal May/June 2018 issue. Download the full issue here and join ISM here.

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