The week in classical: Manchester Collective & Abel Selaocoe; Music@Malling; Music x Museums

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London; Malling Abbey, Kent; British Library, London
Sparks fly as the South African cellist Abel Selaocoe and Manchester Collective live on the edge – and as six composers respond to Bach’s Brandenburg concertos

Curiosity, as Abel Selaocoe reminded us in his welcome to Manchester Collective’s first Queen Elizabeth Hall date, is key to music, to its future, its vitality. The multitalented cellist, who grew up in a township of South Africa and completed his formal studies in Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music, is right. It’s the very sap. It applies as much to an ensemble like the Collective, who play experimental gigs, dress as they choose, shoes on or off, and rove freely between styles, as to a symphony orchestra performing Brahms or a choir singing Handel. Every live performance is both a first and last. How do musicians meet this responsibility? You know the question has not been addressed when a good performance falls flat. There was no danger of that here. Energy and intensity prevailed.

Already a fixture at pioneering venues such as Kings Place, Selaocoe has established a wide following. Now everyone wants a bit of his magic. His rise, achieved through virtuosity and hard work as well as charm and flair, has been swift and deserved. So too has the Collective’s. Founded in 2016, their journey from offbeat venues (I first heard them in an old cricket bat factory three years ago) to mainstage prominence is little short of remarkable. Their challenge will be to maintain their characteristic sense of risk and openness of spirit. Under the music directorship of violinist Rakhi Singh they stand every chance.

Their programme with Selaocoe, called The Oracle, ranged from improvisation to Vivaldi and Stravinsky – crisply and incisively played, with restrained additions from electric guitar, talking drum and calabash – to In Nomine, by the 16th-century English composer Picforth, and a bewitching nocturne, sliding and nebulous, by Oliver Leith, Full Like Drips, from Honey Siren (2020). Mica Levi’s Love, world premieres of Selaocoe’s own compositions Camagu, Tshepo and Kae Mo Rata (in which we joined in singing) and a traditional Danish song, Bridal Piece, completed this exuberant set. You can watch it (free) at 4pm today on Manchester Collective’s website or YouTube channel.

Every bit as wild in a wholly different way was the all-day Music@Malling festival: Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos paired with six world premiere commissions, contrasting in style but sympathetic to each other and to Bach. This annual event is the brainchild of the conductor Thomas Kemp, the music superbly performed by Chamber Domaine and star harpsichordist Steven Devine who, alternating with Kemp, directed from the keyboard. The glorious setting is Malling Abbey in Kent, one of the first post-Norman conquest monasteries for women, suppressed in 1538 (the nuns’ refusal to surrender is a separate, gripping story) and now once again a working Benedictine convent.

To do each composer justice is impossible, but in order of the concertos that inspired their works: Brian Elias’s Sequel, coloured by the sound of three oboes, bassoon and horns, had the precision and gleam of marquetry. In The Malling Diamond, Michael Price kept all in shimmering balance then gave free rein to the trumpet (dazzling playing from Neil Brough). Deborah Pritchard’s Illumination, distinguished by solo violin and prominent double bass pizzicato, reflected the expansive string sound of Brandenburg No 3.

Recorder players Emma Murphy and Louise Bradbury performing at Music@Malling.
Recorder players Emma Murphy and Louise Bradbury performing at Music@Malling. Photograph: Tom Bowles

By this point I was relieved we didn’t have voting buttons: each work spoke so eloquently to the Bach there was no choosing between them. Daniel Kidane’s Concerto Grosso experimented with string microtones and beautiful popping and bopping from two recorders. Joseph Phibbs’s Bach Shadows, played as a prelude to Brandenburg No 5, drew ghostly trills from the harpsichord, in poetic duet with solo flute. Finally, Stevie Wishart’s Gold and Precious Silver started and ended with recorded blackbird song and gave the spotlight to the two violas. It was inserted before the last movement of No 6, so we finished the day, minds and ears expanded, with Bach. It all passed in a flash. Let’s hope other ensembles perform these companion pieces.

In a week with so much novelty, one other enterprise stood out. Music x Museums, initiated by the conductor Oliver Zeffman, is a series of concerts in major museums (beginning last year at the V&A). All are being filmed for future streaming. Coinciding with the British Library’s recent Beethoven: Idealist, Innovator, Icon exhibition, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, conducted by Zeffman, performed the Symphony No 6 “Pastoral” and the Choral Fantasy. First editions of both works were in the exhibition, which we were able to visit beforehand.

The concert was in the British Library’s main atrium. In a visual and aural coup, the Bach Choir delivered their short, punchy contribution to the Choral Fantasy from high above on the stairs, with Peter Donohoe, the classy soloist, and the orchestra below. Next up: 17 May at the Science Museum, featuring two 1960s classics, Terry Riley’s In C and Harrison Birtwistle’s Tragoedia. And on 12 July, Sarah Connolly is aboard the Cutty Sark, singing Elgar’s Sea Pictures from the safety of a dry dock.

Star ratings (out of five)
Manchester Collective & Abel Selaocoe
Music x Museums


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The week in classical: Aida; Candide; Manchester Collective: Weather – review
Verdi’s music reigns supreme in the Royal Opera’s austere new staging of Aida; a community Bernstein production raises the roof; and a cult 90s work has never felt more timely

Fiona Maddocks

01, Oct, 2022 @11:30 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience; Manchester Collective
Poetry, video and dance overwhelm one crowded Messiah, while Manchester Collective embrace danger, jeopardy and the new

Stephen Pritchard

10, Dec, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
The week in classical: Houses Slide; Manchester Collective x Edmund Finnis; Elias String Quartet
One woman takes on the climate crisis in an off-grid world first

Fiona Maddocks

17, Jul, 2021 @11:30 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Káťa Kabanová; Ragged Music festival – review
Janáček’s darkest of operas provided a searing start to Glyndebourne’s new season

Fiona Maddocks

29, May, 2021 @11:30 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Lucio Papirio Dittatore; New Music Biennial – review
Three centuries after its first, and last, outing, an epic baroque opera fizzes into life in Buxton. Elsewhere, gongs, ouds and ice-cream vans

Fiona Maddocks

13, Jul, 2019 @10:59 AM

Article image
The week in classical: The Yeomen of the Guard; Alcina – music under siege
ENO stands firm amid extreme funding cuts with a Gilbert and Sullivan staging full of vim and vigour, while animal magic ripples through Richard Jones’s new Alcina

Fiona Maddocks

12, Nov, 2022 @12:30 PM

Article image
The week in classical: Akhnaten; Music for 18 Musicians; Britten Sinfonia; LSO/Gardiner – review
Minimalism becomes spectacle in ENO’s entrancing Philip Glass revival, while many hands make hypnotically light work of Steve Reich

Fiona Maddocks

17, Feb, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Classical Vauxhall; L'Heure Espagnole – review
Fresh performances of Shostakovich and Beethoven open Classical Vauxhall’s mini-festival, while GPO turns its hand to Ravel’s clock-shop comedy

Fiona Maddocks

27, Mar, 2021 @12:30 PM

Article image
The week in classical: Migrations; Aldeburgh festival; Royal Academy of Music SO/Bychkov
WNO’s multi-stranded exploration of human migration is a joy; Aldeburgh honours Oliver Knussen in style; and the RAM’s future stars are bold as brass

Fiona Maddocks

02, Jul, 2022 @11:30 AM

Article image
The week in classical: Billy Budd; Holy Week festival – review
Royal Opera House, St John’s Smith Square, London
A radiant and raw production brings out the nuances of Britten’s seafaring opera; and Bach offers Easter gifts

Fiona Maddocks

28, Apr, 2019 @6:59 AM