Manchester Collective has found it’s London home with Daniel Elms’ capitivating Islandia
Manchester Collective created a Fringe vibe with an added sense of urgency about it in one of CLF Aft Theatre’s warehouse spaces last Tuesday.
Some people sat, some people mingled at the bar, others stood at the back and the sides pint glasses in hand. The musicians of Manchester Collective took their seats and, as though they were preparing to perform an operation, carefully fiddled with screws and dials, positioned themselves in their seats and checked their instruments. Respectful nods and smiles exchanged, a reverential pause, and a new sound world – to be found on composer Daniel Elms’ new album Islandia also released last week – emerged.
Such productions are tricky things to pull off, as I pointed out to an industry chap a couple of days afterwards.
Putting classical music in unusual venues is in itself a bit old hat now. Endless organisations issue proclamations revelling in their supposed innovative approach to making audiences feel less intimidated at the concert hall (the BBC National Orchestra of Wales is doing a run of concerts with ‘light displays’ later in the year) believing that transplanting their usual programmes into a different venue is all they need to do.
The trick is to make the music fit the venue. There’s no real dark art to this. Use instinct. Exploit neuro-linguistic cues: some repertoire works (usually chamber or solo and almost certainly Baroque, early classical or contemporary), other repertoire doesn’t. The more intimate the venue and the more pared back the score, the better the two will combine.
But it’s also about understanding the audience you want to appeal to, and anticipating the experience they want.
And that’s where I think Manchester Collective do successfully achieve the perfect mix. The vibe is right for the crowd. A re-purposed warehouse in South East London’s version of Shoreditch (minus the hipsters), a few theatrical lights, and the right music. Not only new music from Daniel Elms and Singh/Gainsborough, but Bach as well. Nothing felt too forced. Nothing stuck out like a sore thumb particularly.
The overall effect had a strange effect on my memories.
My teenage years (and those in higher education) were awkward and confused. I was a massive square, and didn’t really do cool, curious, or unorthodox. The kind of places my contemporaries were frequenting on Friday and Saturday nights didn’t interest. In fact, they scared me. To fit in would have necessitated completely changing my personality. I avoided most of them.
But there are times nowadays – like Tuesday evening in Peckham – when the vibe prompts me to recall those few experiences I did participate in with a warm glow, as though adulthood has helped me understand what the appeal of such experiences are and finally, at the age of 46, made me ready and possibly even hungry for them. It all seemed so alienating in the early 1990s when I was supposed to run towards it. Twenty-five years later its my kind of thing by virtue of the fact it makes me feel a little edgy.
Daniel Elms’ work played a key role in establishing the vibe. It’s a compelling collection of pieces running to 40 minutes with flashes of Reich, Glass and, part way through a ravishing trumpet solo – a musical oasis of bittersweet calm. Unusual sounds you never thought you wanted to hear that draw you into a world fuelled by your own imagination. I found it engrossing, absorbing, and thoroughly entertaining.
This was the first of a string of tour dates in which Elms’s new work appears and with a beatifully poetic piece of scheduling, the studio recording of Islandia has come out this week too. Hear it live, listen to it back on your preferred streaming service (or even buy it).
I was less enthralled by Singh/Gainsborough’s Paradise Lost. Lengthy and often intense, it did have a similar to MC’s gig at King’s Place recently where I felt it pushed me to the edge of my emotions, an achievement which might paradoxically be the sign of good art.
Sometimes the most pleasant surprises are to be found in the most unexpected places
If the UK orchestra’s marketing departments have to frequently scratch their heads to dream up new ways to entice audiences through the doors (the LPO’s recent reward scheme is a great one by the way), then spare a thought for the slew of amateur bands up and down the country. Not only are they trying to persuade people to attend an event with music that maybe unfamiliar, they’re also doing battle with the perception that an amateur performance won’t be up to scratch in terms of quality.
I say that because I know that I think that myself. Amateur music-making just isn’t going to cut it. I’m not going to be moved. I’m going to walk away dissatisfied.
But as with a lot of things just recently, those assumptions are slowly being challenged. Some of them are being eroded too. Where does our obsession with perfection or elite performance come from? Who says that if its not perfect its not worth listening to? Where does that come from?
Maybe that’s a whole set of questions for another blog post. Or a podcast or something. At the very least, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra‘s concert last night at St Martin in the Fields prompted those same questions.
That’s not to say by the way that the CO’s performance was rough around the edges. Quite the opposite. That was the fundamentally surprising thing about the band. Professionals by day, high quality unpaid amateur musicians (my assumption is they’re from conservatoire backgrounds though I’m not entirely sure) by night. Nine hours or so of rehearsal, then a concert. That’s it.
The aspiration was initially most striking. An arresting and captivating arrangement of Janacek’s On an Overgrown Path for, essentially, wind and bass strings by conductor Michael Seal, bringing Janacek’s piano cycle closer in concept to Schoenberg’s first symphony.
Programmatically this seemed like an impressively bold aspiration, met with considerable aplomb by the CO’s two clarinettists for whom key movements saw them play centre stage. It was also a bastard of an arrangement for the bassoons. My money’s on arranger Michael Seal a liking for clarinets more than bassoons.
Come Beethoven’s Eroica in the second half, the stamina of the wind section became apparent and another surprise from this concert: the attention to detail both articulation, ensemble and intonation was obvious. A considerable undertaking, excellently executed that maximised the challenges of St Martins in the Field’s generous acoustic.
Soloist Alan Thomas evoked a celebratory air with Haydn’s joyous trumpet concerto – it’s a rare thing I actually sit in an audience and a wide warm smile stretches across my face – and although the large string section sometimes felt a little clunky in places, there was still a skip and a bounce in proceedings to keep things moving in the first and third movements.
The strings shone in the Beethoven. There was a ferociousness to the opening movement, an enthusiasm articulated through dramatic dynamic contrast, and a rich range of colours. With my head down listening attentively, there seemed little evidence that this was anything other than a collection of professional musicians playing a low-key gig in a church.
Personally, I think the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra should just drop the amateur tag in the biography. I like the idea that there could be a brand of music-making powered by musicians who have entirely different day jobs. What a call-to-action that would be for music education.
The Corinthian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Seal embark on a week-long tour of engagements in Spain next week. Follow their progress on social media with the hashtag #CCOOnTour
Rose Miranda-Hall was one of the composers who participated in the Wildplum Songbook two-day workshop hosted by PRS for Music. I made a film about it.
Now, she’s working with librettist and singer Lila Palmer and director Miranda Cromwell, on a production of a new opera entitled ‘Dead Equal’, featuring the stories that aren’t heard about women in combat during World War One.
Like the workshop participants who featured in Thoroughly Good Podcast 39, there is an unshakeable energy to be fed off when you’re in the company of enthused individuals. I felt it at PRS for Music, and looking back over some of the footage I captured at last night’s launch event for a film I want to make about their work, I felt it again last night.
More and more I find I’m drawing inspiration from the people I speak to as I make the stuff that seeks to spotlight their endeavours. Powerful.
There are a mammoth 19 shows programmed for ‘Dead Equal’s run at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. I don’t envy them. The Fringe offers great opportunities, but demands a great deal from its performers. I’m in no doubt they’ll triumph, just like the subjects of the story they’re telling.