Manchester International Festival – standing tall in turbulent times

The Manchester International Festival feels more vital than ever in the wake of the city's recent terrorism trauma. David Fay picks out some highlights.

The city of Manchester has lived through a traumatic period. The Manchester Arena bombing was a horrific attack on innocence and joy that will leave a deep scar. But Manchester International Festival, which runs from June 29 to July 16 will be testament to the resilience and dignity of the city. One of the most important cultural events in the country, the biennial MIF commissions new works from across the artistic spectrum: from ballet to rap via opera and electro. Director John McGrath said some events had been revised, giving them a haunting new relevance. “From MIF’s viewpoint, it feels more urgent than ever to be doing that kind of open event celebrating the city’s newfound spirit,” he said.

The city itself is at the heart of many of these works. The first event, fittingly titled What is the City but the People?, brings inhabitants together at the end of the working day to create a ‘self-portrait’ of the city, set to music by local boy, record producer Graham Massey. Another situational commission, Music for a Busy City, takes the music of six contemporary composers out of the concert hall and embeds it in public spaces across Manchester. Specially commissioned music by Anna Meredith, Mohammed Fairouz, Matthew Herbert, Huang Ruo, Olga Neuwirth and Philip Venables will be heard every hour in such spaces as Victoria Station, St Ann’s Square and the walkway linking Selfridges and M&S.

On July 4, Bridgewater Hall plays host to the BBC Philharmonic in a traditionally formatted concert celebrating Anthony Burgess, the writer of A Clockwork Orange, who was also a prolific composer. Marking a century since Burgess’ birth in the inner-city area of Harpurhey, the concert features a new work written by Raymond Yiu: a symphonic song cycle that sets six Burgess poems. The world premiere of The World Was Once All Miracle will be sung by the great British baritone Roderick Williams, alongside Burgess’ own Symphony in C.

One of the highlights of this year’s festival is a piece first performed 34 years ago. Available Light is a collaboration between three US artists at the top of their fields: architect Frank Gehry, choreographer Lucinda Childs and composer John Adams. Originally written for the opening of a new space at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, this new production at the Palace Theatre (July 6-8) looks forward to the opening in 2020 of Factory, the Manchester venue operated by MIF. Available Light is a fusion of space, sound and movement featuring Adams’ minimalist composition Light over Water, which blends acoustic brass with pre-recorded synthesisers.

One more MIF commission that deserves a mention is BambinO, an opera for babies composed by Lliam Paterson and performed by Scottish Opera, which runs at the Pavilion Theatre on July 4 and 5 before touring community venues across the city. Composed and designed specifically for very young audiences (and, presumably, their parents), BambinO is MIF’s answer to the question of ageing classical music audiences. With any luck, it will contribute towards nurturing the next generation of inquisitive, culturally open Mancunians, standing tall for the cause of humanity in turbulent times.