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Jan 9 / Simon

Time to roar

January 2017
A small city with a large past. Hull is pushing the boat out as City of Culture 2017. Simon Tait reports

“Everyone back to ours” is the homely, welcoming slogan for Hull’s year as City of Culture in 2017, but the city’s front parlour is so crowded that its director, Martin Green, has only announced the first quarter’s programme.

At the end of this opening period, though, will be what promises to be the most extraordinary event of them all, occupying the ethereal and beautiful Humber Bridge, the longest single span suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1981. In April the orchestra and chorus of Opera North will turn it into the biggest concert stage ever with a musical installation presenting a new piece by Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen and collaborators Jan Bang and Eivind Aarset, with the sounds of the bridge itself caught by Hull-based sound artist Jez Riley, all experienced by the audience through earphones during a walk across the 2,200 metre bridge.

It’s an ethereal, futuristic offer from a little city, population 258,000, with a large past. Kingston-upon-Hull was invented by Edward I as a supply base for his campaigns of Scot hammering, at the spot where the rivers Humber and Hull meet the North Sea, and through the Middle Ages it became the main port to import cloth, iron ore, oil seed and timber from northern Europe. It, and its merchants, grew rich. When Charles I tried to take control of the city’s arsenal in 1642 he was turned away at the gates, laid siege and after five weeks was defeated, thus providing the first action of the Civil War. Later in the 17th century the poet Andrew Marvell was Hull’s MP; so was William Wilberforce a century later, launching his anti-slavery campaign from here.

With whaling coming to the port in the 18th century it continued to flourish, and fishing generally became Hull’s main source of prosperity through the 19th century, with railways making distribution relatively easy. With prosperity went civic pride marked by the creation of buildings like the majestic Guildhall.

After the First World War housing estates were built and there was more urban development, but overfishing in the 1920s and 30s set off an industrial decline. In the Second World War Hull was devastated by bombing raids, and post-war reconstruction was slow and laborious, while fishing declined more. The old docks were closed, a new dock to handle container traffic opened in the 60s, and Scandinavian super-ferries operate from there. But unemployment is now among the highest in the country, and the floods of 2007 made thousands homeless. Hull needs this boost, and it has recruited battalions of music to give it a fair wind.

The City of Culture has already worked its magic, with more than £1 billion of industrial investment coming in since it was announced in 2013, and there’s a £100m cultural infrastructure programme under way. The great musical legacy will be Hull’s new £36m 3,500 seat music and events centre, Hull Venue, but that won’t be finished until 2018 so the multiplicity of music on offer will take place in the city’s existing venues.

However, Hull University’s Middleton Hall has just reopened ready for 2017 after a £9.5m refit which includes a 400-seat concert hall where, on February 9, Chinese guitar virtuoso Xuefei Yang will give a recital, and where a week later Schubert’s Winterreise will be sung in a new English translation by the baritone Roderick Williams, accompanied by Christopher Glynn. On February 23 The New London Ensemble will give a wind quintet’s take on Mozart there, and the following afternoon the actor Simon Callow joins the band with musical stories from Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf to Martin Butler’s Dirty Beasts for a family show. The ensemble deNOTE reveals some secrets of 18th century chamber music, using period instruments, on March 2, and on the 31st Mica Levi brings to the Middleton the London Sinfonietta who she will conduct in Under the Skin, her Bafta-nominated score for the sci-fi film.

For the time being Hull’s principal venue remains the magisterial City Hall, former municipal nerve centre and now august performance venue, where the Royal Philharmonic will make its contribution on February 2 with the film music of John Williams, and on March 16 the Hallé brings Mahler’s Fourth Symphony.

At the Ferens Studio from March 10 to 12, the Sinfonia UK Collective will reveal the work of Hull-born musical pioneer Ethel Leginska (born Liggins) who died in 1970 aged 84 after a career in which she was the first woman to conduct many of the world’s orchestras, a composer, founder of the Boston Philharmonic, teacher and performer.

Looking forward into the summer, there is to be the first part of the New Musical Biennial in Hull, when the PRS for Music Foundation joins with Hull, the Southbank Centrem, BBC Radio 3 and NMC recordings to commission new work from composers as varied as folk star Eliza Carthy, the composer Gavin Bryars and jazz ensemble GoGo Penguin.

But the big event that will fit most cosily in Our Place in this first quarter takes place at the City Hall on February 25, when the Hull Philharmonic has its big night. The amateur orchestra has been part of the city’s cultural landscape for 130 years, and resident in this venue for a century. It was founded in 1881 in an age when music was performed in everyone’s front parlour to varying degrees of proficiency, with 27 members. There are now 80 and the Phil is acknowledged as one of the finest in the country, and will show its quality by performing the world premiere of a new work by Sir Karl Jenkins, with the pianist Martin Roscoe as guest.

“Hull has always had a unique cultural voice,” said Green in launching the year, “and in 2017 it will roar”.