sat 04/02/2023

Manchester Collective String Orchestra, RNCM, Manchester review - a remarkable new work for string ensemble | reviews, news & interviews

Manchester Collective String Orchestra, RNCM, Manchester review - a remarkable new work for string ensemble

Manchester Collective String Orchestra, RNCM, Manchester review - a remarkable new work for string ensemble

This themed set is an enigma, but Shostakovich puts all in perspective

Sensitivity and passion: Rakhi Singh leads Manchester Collective’s performanceChris Payne Images

Manchester Collective’s string orchestra programme, opening last night at the Royal Northern College of Music and touring to the South Bank, Leeds and Liverpool, is notable chiefly for the world premiere of will o wisp, by Oliver Leith, a remarkable piece of writing for the medium.

The set is titled “Places We Know” and was devised by Pekka Kuusisto, but he had to withdraw from performing because of illness. His place is taken by Rakhi Singh, the Collective’s music director, leading the ensemble.

The overall impression, considering that set title and the information given on the music played, is (as Elgar might have put it) of an enigma whose theme is never heard. Kuusisto is not there to explain it. Do the pieces all refer to physical places? One does: Caroline Shaw’s Plan & Elevation, which was commissioned by the US art museum, Dumbarton Oaks (known chiefly for the piece Stravinsky wrote with its name in the title).

Rahki Singh, music director of Manchester Collective. cr Chris Payne ImagesAnother, Missy Mazzoli’s You Know Me From Here (2012), is about the feeling of place and the experience of travelling – at least metaphorically, as loss, loneliness and security are the composer’s terms to ID what it’s doing in its three named parts. It was written for the Kronos Quartet originally, and at the outset has the concerto grosso contrast of a small group with a larger one. There’s raw rhythmic energy at the start, punching its way into your consciousness (“Lift Your Fists” is the titling clue); there’s a gorgeous cello solo (Christian Elliott) in the middle bit, growing into a rich ensemble texture and a dialogue, with a role for solo viola and soaring melodic lines; and a dance-like finale of pizzicato and repeated patterns, overlaid by long sustained notes in the exhilarating way that Holst employed in the finale of the St Paul’s Suite. The playing under Rakhi Singh (pictured above) was warm and brilliant: she has a top-notch group of players for these gigs, including one of the two leaders of the BBC Philharmonic, Zoë Beyers.

Oliver Leith’s will o wisp, a co-commission with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, is an intriguing work. Introducing it, Rakhi Singh said: “He does this particular thing with sound: he sort of bends it…”, and you could hear what she meant. What begins seeming almost like plainsong develops into pitch-bending, and after a fade-away there’s a slithery theme introduced in canon and built into a complex texture. Then it stops; I like Leith’s willingness to let his music speak in tranches, rather than the obsessive continuousness of works which are full of different titles but whose content seems all the same. Finger tremolandi, pianissimo tuttis, gasping fragments of melody and rich chords are all used in his lexicon, and towards the end there’s a folky kind of violin solo with a progressively weirder accompaniment and some very high harmonics, like bird calls, atop the texture – succeeded by a slow lament akin to a chaconne (remember Dido?). Leith says in the north of Europe we spend time sitting in the dark, consuming fermented stuff and playing happy/sad music, in a “warm buzz of confusion”. I get that.

Caroline Shaw, a New Yorker, is punning with Plan & Elevation (2015). Yes, they are architectural terms, and her take on Dumbarton Oaks was to look at its exterior. But she’s concerned also about life’s journey, from plans to fruitions (hopefully, elevated ones) and includes quotations from her own previous work in the five continuous sections (given titles derived from the country house’s surroundings). It's full of familiar string ensemble effects and creates a sense of the episodic rather than anything else.

The performance was topped off with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony (an arrangement of the eighth string quartet by Rudolf Barshai, the only one he did to have been explicitly authorised by the composer). This kind of searing introspection – it worries around his D-Es-C-H musical monogram and quotes a number of his own pain-filled creations – rather puts today’s self-referential writing in perspective. Rakhi Singh and the Manchester Collective String Orchestra ripped into its Allegro with a vehemence that was temporarily dissipated on this first night by a broken string on the principal cello (these things happen), but intensity grew once things were underway again and the remainder was played with great sensitivity and passion. There was an attempt at a bit of coloured-light enhancement of the music here (Manchester Collective like to create ambience and pumped a bit of haze around the platform all through the set, too), but it hardly needed to be added to the music.

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