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3rd November 2013

“I have a dream”: Lemn Sissay & Manchester Camerata

Annie Muir feels truly privileged to have witnessed Lemn Sissay and the Manchester Camerata’s tribute to Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech

No introduction necessary, Lemn Sissay and the Manchester Camerata walked out into the Manchester Town Hall and blew us all away.

The Manchester Camerata is acknowledged as one of the UK’s leading chamber orchestras; they played Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B Flat, Op. 130, which was written between 1825-6. Andrew Mellor states that the quartets which came at the end of Beethoven’s creative life ‘became a means of personal expression’ and describes that they have a reputation for being ‘obscure and impossible music born of an unstable, irrational mind.’ The Camerata were flawless (to my unmusically-trained ears) and fascinating; I sat bolt upright in my seat for the entire performance.

The quartet was split into sections, in between which Sissay would bound onto the stage with hair like Willy Wonka and perform his new poem commissioned by the Manchester Literature Festival specifically for this event. I feel truly privileged to have witnessed it.

The poem was Sissay’s personal response to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. He didn’t mention the title of the poem, but I think it would be called ‘I Belong’, which was constantly repeated throughout: “I stand on top of the Hacienda. It means house, it means home. And I shout ‘I Belong!’ ”

Leaping around, wide-eyed, spitting out lines of immigration and Manchester and John Cooper Clarke, Sissay could have rallied us up and sent us out into the streets; he spoke of “the unassailable us” and told us to “unlock all doors.” No one dared to interrupt him except for the church bells, which forced him to pause one section and start again.

The Camerata finished with the ‘colossal chain of fugal variations’ which friends of Beethoven successfully persuaded him to cut from the original piece (it became its own piece: ‘Grosse Fugue’). The musicians chose to restore it to its rightful place.

At the end of the event, Sissay jokily differentiated between the people who came for the music and the ‘poetry people’ in the audience. I came primarily for the poetry, but the music was so interesting that it worked in a similar way to poetry: sending your mind in all sorts of strange directions as you try to focus in on it.

The ‘music people’ must have been equally shocked by the power of Sissay’s poem, which woke us all up from the musical stupor each time he came on. His poem should be heard in every school in the country and shouted from the tops of buildings across Manchester.

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