tue 25/06/2024

Sansara, Manchester Collective, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - sense of a unique experience | reviews, news & interviews

Sansara, Manchester Collective, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - sense of a unique experience

Sansara, Manchester Collective, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester review - sense of a unique experience

Three world premieres all respond to Feldman’s 'Rothko Chapel'

Mystery and otherness: Manchester Collective at the Bridgewater HallCharlotte Wellings

Manchester Collective have come a long way since their early days of chamber music in dark and dingy Salford basements and former MOT test centres. But they haven’t forgotten what made those pioneering performances special: the sense of a unique experience, and a readiness to chat to the audience as well as playing.

Now, with the virtuoso chamber choir Sansara, they’ve given four shows in a week, in London, Leverkusen, Antwerp and Manchester, with a trio of world premieres in the setlist (as they like to call it), each commissioned by themselves and all invited as responses to Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel (a seminal 30-minute meditation for choir, solo viola, celeste and percussion from 1971).

Contemporary music, in the Collective’s book, is meant to be enjoyed, not endured, and a concert should be, as artistic director Rakhi Singh (who also leads as principal violinist) put it in her chat spot, about “colour, sound, form, vibration and silence” and should enable the performers to bring their passion and their personalities to it as much as in any other genre.

For the last of the four outings they were back on home ground (where the Bridgewater Hall presented them as part of its “International” concert series), and a large and appreciative audience proved they have won a real following here.

Their care with staging begins before the set itself: there’s a dark backcloth, some haze, dim lighting and background music (Lewis Howell is credited for lighting design and Tomoya Forster for sound). The thought must be that, as the Feldman piece was a reaction to a chapel building created not so much for worship as to house paintings by Mark Rothko – most of which are dark-hued and seem to embody stillness – so the concert hall must take on its own sense of mystery and otherness.

The first notes emerge from near total blackness – Arvo Pärt’s Solfeggio for unaccompanied choir (1963). It’s just notes of the scale sung to their do, re, mi (etc) names – but “doe, a deer, a female deer” it is not: Pärt treats us to a tone-row exercise of overlapping pitches and varying intervals. It’s as if the basics of music were being rediscovered; and so is the unadorned melody of Giacinto Scelsi’s Ave Maria for solo cello (1972), which Nick Trygstad played with soulful meaning.

Those pieces were just introductory to the first new work: Isobel Waller-Bridge’s No. 9, which is a reaction to a particular Rothko painting. For choir, string quartet, celeste and percussion, it uses voices as if they were sustaining instruments and builds from an initial unison through denser and denser textures and more and more varied colours and growing dynamics to a point of splintering and decay and contemplative chords.

Katherine Balch’s songs and interludes, the second premiere piece, borrows the idea of alternation of voices and instrumental sound from Feldman’s work, but uses poetry fragments from Virginia Woolf, sung by high voices (though the words, as in the Waller-Bridge work, are invisible to almost all and indistinguishable): the singers use both their voices and skills in playing mouth organ (harmonica) and whispers, while the textures are unadorned and the percussion is interruptive and occasionally explosive.

Another two brief pieces (a cello solo by Saariaho and Vespers for violin by Missy Mazzoli, for solo violin and electronics, played by Rakhi Singh and earning, interestingly, the most enthusiasm of the night thus far) led to the third commission: Blue Divided by Blue, by Edmind Finnis, for choir, string quartet and tubular bells. It’s a lament, emotive, building in passion and expression from a viola solo to briefly rich heterophony for the quartet and then reflecting the voices’ contribution with elegiac chords. The Collective are fond of Finnis’s work, and so am I: it’s constantly inventive and stimulating in its use of both traditional quartet tone qualities and those of choral voices.

Ruth Gibson plsying with Manchester Collective at the Bridgewater Hall, ManchesterFinally, after the break, the Feldman: its viola solo played beautifully by Ruth Gibson (pictured), and the choir (conductor Tom Herring) producing a wonderfully subtle and hushed sense of the numinous. This was singing of an extremely high order, and the close-written choral sounds were quite extraordinary, with bell-clear soprano soli. More than in any of the previous items, the lighting design had been calibrated to reflect the music’s progress, and the effect was one of profound thoughtfulness and even inspiration. One of the Collective’s little quirks is that they like to tease a bit. On this occasion they did that by producing a word sheet that they knew no one would be able to read in the dark (though you could get it on your phone), and by offering on the same piece of paper a setlist that wasn’t in the order of the music as played (though the actual order was available, also via QR code on your phone). I guess it’s meant to make a concert a total experience in itself and something you check up on afterwards as to its content … I was messing with my phone so I could follow what was actually going on, but few seemed to follow suit, so maybe that’s how we like our music now. 

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