Review: Manchester Collective Voice of the Whale. Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester

Journalists sometimes get it wrong. In 1849, a chap by the name of Angus Reach wrote in The Morning Chronicle about the Ancoats district of Manchester: “A more perfectly ugly spot you shall not find between sunrise and sunset”. Reach was describing the very epicentre of the Industrial Revolution.

While there was muck and misery amongst the mills and canals – there was also the laying down of the richest cultural heritage that residents and visitors take for granted today. Time Out described Ancoats as the ‘13th Coolest neighbourhood in the world’ in 2018.

Credit: Chris Payne

So what has this preamble got to do with one of the most important arts organisations in the UK at the moment? Well on Saturday 25 September, Manchester Collective brought Voice of the Whale to the extraordinary space of Hallé St Peter’s on Blossom Street, Manchester. With their first major touring project this year – and recently home from performances in Lancaster and Bristol, works from Molly Joyce and Andrew Hamilton, mixed with the energy of the uber-cool Saturday-nighters in the bars and restaurants, to create a singular buzz that said: ‘This is the place to be.’

Manchester Collective’s creative journey is one of determined heroism and belief. From Shumann and Kurtag at Leeds Town Hall in autumn ’18, to their recent debut at the BBC Proms, the work they consistently arrange and perform, is not only attracting a new, distinct cohort of classical devotees, but is also challenging established norms to such an extent – that when Hamilton’s In Beautiful May is melded with samples from local lads Take That – of course it works. And delights.

Credit: Chris Payne

So, to the music…Siwan Rhys opened the evening with Joyce’s dramatic and unsettling High and Low. Joyce asks the question: ‘how high is high and how low is low on the piano, and everything in between?’ In specifically challenging what is beyond the physical nature of the piano itself, Rhys’s answer was definite. Not much.

Next came ‘Curved Form (St Endellion)’  from Alex Groves – and is a piece that was originally commissioned by Manchester Collective back in 2019. Donald Grant (violin) and Nathanial Boyd (cello), together with Joe Reiser providing live sound and live electronics, took the composer’s inspiration of the view of the horizon from a Cornish clifftop – and through the use of intricate and perfectly-timed ‘loops’, transported the audience to a ‘tidal’ environment that will have been familiar and comforting to many.

Former Chetham’s student Andrew Hamilton composed ‘In Beautiful May’ in 2008, but Donald Grant’s performance – again accompanied by the ‘back-of-the-room wizardry’ of Joe Reiser, made the piece utterly ‘of-the-moment’. It was an interpretation that sets the Manchester Collective musicians apart from their peers.

Credit: Chris Payne

George Crumb’s ‘Vox Balaenae’ concluded the set and was apparently written in 1969 after the composer heard a recording of a humpback whale, singing deep in the Pacific. Siwan Rhys at the piano, Alex Jakeman on flute and Nathaniel Boyd’s cello combined to create an exquisite, other-worldly culmination to the evening. As with much of Crumb’s work, his leadership transcends the score – and the musicians dutifully followed instructions – donning masks while playing beneath blue-filtered lights.

The Manchester Collective people, with Adam Szabo and Rakhi Singh at the helm, are in a state of permanent evolution – and are a joy, an education, an escape – and proof that pushing boundaries and taking risks, reaps rewards.

The Voice of the Whale tour continues:

26 September – Stockport – Where The Light Gets In

30 September – Farsley – The Old Woollen, Sunny Bank Mills

1 October – Birkenhead – Future Yard

2 October – London – Southbank Centre

Colin Petch

September 2021

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