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Jean-Guihen Queyras plays one of Bach’s cello suites at a specially designed space at the Manchester Art Gallery (Duncan Elliott)

A rewarding experiment in creating an ideal space to hear some of Bach’s most intimate music — the solo suites for piano, for cello and for violin — is taking place here at the Manchester International Festival. Zaha Hadid Architects was commissioned by the festival to take a top-floor exhibition room at the Manchester Art Gallery and turn what is basically a big black box into an acoustically and visually perfect place for performances of the Bach works.

When the festival opened on July 3 (before I arrived), the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski played three programs offering three solo keyboard suites. On Saturday night, for the second installment in this series, I heard the elegant French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras play four of Bach’s six solo cello suites in this specially conceived environment.

Working with Sandy Brown Associates, an acoustical company, the team from Zaha Hadid has temporarily created a space within a space. Like an enormous, puffy ribbon, a long span of translucent off-white fabric with an inner metal skeleton twirls down from the ceiling in expanding circles, until it nearly surrounds the low platform stage and the seating area for some 200 listeners. The fabric, which undulates against the metal frame, both absorbs and deflects the sound. Clear acrylic acoustical panels, blended seamlessly into the overall design, hover over the stage area to further diffuse the sound.

Sitting in the enclosure was like hearing music from inside a supersize conical seashell. Between the gaps in the ribbon you could see the black gallery walls, so the effect was to create a sort of safe listening enclave within a much larger room.

In a program note Zaha Hadid, founding partner of the firm that bears her name, writes that she and her associates tried to articulate the “rhythmic and harmonic range” that Bach achieved “within the mathematical framework” of his music by exploring “a coherent integration of formal and structural logic.” I will have to take her word on this. All I know is that the space was a delight to be in and that the music sounded up-close and exceptionally vibrant.


Anthony Tommasini
New York Times