25 OCTOBER 2003, Page 73

Birthday tribute

Robin Holloway

After nearly a week I'm beginning to understand the lay-out of this megamaniac hotel, a redbrick and terracotta masterpiece by Alfred Waterhouse built originally as head offices for Refuge Assurance, now converted with uneasy opulence as a refuge for well-heeled transients. Each storey is differently colourcoded with millions of unfadeable encaustic tiles, but this doesn't really assist orientation. Any exploratory divergence from the long route to reception takes one somewhere unfamiliar — up, to dormer areas closely encountering fantastic chimney stacks, secret turrets and belvederes, clustering about the main tower, almost Gaucli-like in its brazen extravagance; or down, to unknown regions, where an unlocked door can reveal a boardroom or ballroom with capacity for 1,000 shareholders, or voluminous kitchens. Desperate to escape, one eventually bursts through alarmed fire-exits to emerge amidst the dustbins at street-level and has to trail without compass by alleys and railway arches above a lurking little black river to locate the palatial main frontage somewhere quite different.

This is throbbing, pulsating central Manchester, where I'm temporarily poised to mark my 60th birthday. Fortified by hefty Victorian breakfasts, I then hurry each day along Oxford Road to the BBC or the Royal Northern College of Music to fulfil a tight schedule of meetings, classes, rehearsals, concerts, lubricated by copious draughts of strong local bitter. Such schedules are usually described as 'punishing'. The better word would be 'rewarding', for this well-filled week of performances, covering my output in all its aspects except operatic and choral over some 30 years' worth of production (the latest, a string quartet completed only a month ago), is analogous in its way to the city's purposeful industrial nature. No sleepy cow-andgate English pastoral here! More like satanic mills; building with fiery sword in hand a fierce florid habitation within whose massy walls lie secrets domestic, amorous, nostalgic, hilarious, delicious, wistful, sad.

I'm overwhelmed by the calibre and commitment of the students and their teachers. The brass band at the Royal Northern, outstandingly well-disciplined without eschewing that golden multivoiced tone unique to this medium: their big wind band (strengthened with double basses and crowned with percussion); and their prodigies of stamina in a taxing, serious display-piece some 25 minutes long, telling a complex, even labyrinthine tale that never for a second lost the plot. And the small mixed ensemble dedicated to contemporary music gave their ambitious programme with relish and delight — the two 'celeste concertos', Oliver Knussen's Ophelia Dances and my Evening with Angels, sparkled, twinkled, planged, seared and sang as well as I've ever heard them. Sometimes these performances were better, indeed, than the pieces had previously received. Let's hope these grand young players will retain such zest when they go Out into the profession with all its risk of routine and weariness.

Not that the professionals of the 138C Philharmonic can be thus arraigned! Under the unfazable musicality of Martyn Brabbins they put together an exceedingly arduous orchestral concert in just three days. Even the opener, my Scenes from Schumann, which first revealed to me the forbidden exit not to dustbins so much as to a smiling harvest-filled new/old terrain, remains tricky enough. But at least short! The Violin Concerto that followed and the Second Concerto for Orchestra that concluded are blockbusters both, albeit utterly different — the solo concerto an interfolded fan of dulcet radiance, elegy, springand-winter-tinged volatility; the orchestral concerto an epic riot of wakeful senseimpression, supercharged dream-laden sleep, waking refreshed and avid for more. Both need virtuosity, concentration, sweetness and raucousness, and unflagging energy, and — again — the ability to sustain a complex narrative. Without this last, they're merely notes; sound and fury without architecture or goal. These performances were at least as colourful and lavish in detail as Waterhouse's Refuge, but unlike it in being clearly signposted for entrance, carousing and exit, as well as all the surprises en route.

It's as old as journalism itself to write your own review! But this isn't quite what I intend here; more, a tribute to Manchester's musical institutions, and the marvellous city itself, that deemed it 'appropriate' to give my music such a handsome birthday outing. So (in the returning train 'the morning after') I've reached 60 years of age and never been played yet in Berlin, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Los Angeles, Amsterdam; nor has my native London been particularly generous in recent years. But this was something else, distinctly in the spirit of this frank, friendly, enterprising place.

During my one free morning I took the tram to visit the much-vaunted new development in Salford Quays — The Lowry, gimcrack but pulsing with life, and hosting a fascinating exhibition of views, panoramas, renditions of expanse, city and landscape, smiling prosperity or natural disaster or man-made catastrophe; then Daniel Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North, with its coruscating communal experience as the lights go out and the videos go up, vast on every crazy wall surface — and everything focused in a gulping blur of intense emotion. Then one suppresses the snuffles and girds oneself anew for life after 60.