Journalists sometimes get it wrong. In 1849, a chap by the name of Angus Reach talked about the Ancoats district of Manchester in The Morning Chronicle. He wrote: “A more perfectly ugly spot you shall not find between sunrise and sunset”. Reach was describing the epicentre of the Industrial Revolution.
While there was muck and misery among the mills and canals, there was also the laying down of the richest cultural heritage that residents and visitors take for granted today. Back in 2018, Time Out even described Ancoats as the “13th coolest neighbourhood in the world”.
So, what has this preamble got to do with one of the most important arts organisations in the UK? Well, late last month, Manchester Collective brought Voice of the Whale to the extraordinary space of Hallé St Peter’s on Manchester’s Blossom Street. The venue is surrounded by bars and restaurants and, sitting in the space, you can hear the hubbub outside. Added to the music inside, this created a strikingly cool, Saturday night atmosphere, which made me think that ‘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 2018, 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, it is also challenging established norms to such an extent that, when Andrew Hamilton’s In Beautiful May is melded with samples from local lads Take That, of course it works. And delights.
To the music. Siwan Rhys opened the evening with Molly Joyce’s dramatic and unsettling High and Low. By specifically challenging what is beyond the physical nature of the piano itself, Joyce begged the questions, how high is high, how low is low on the piano?
Next, we were treated to Curved Form (St Endellion) from Alex Groves, which was commissioned by Manchester Collective back in 2019. Donald Grant (violin) and Nathanial Boyd (cello), together with Joe Reiser who provided live sound and electronics, took the composer’s inspiration of the view of the horizon from a Cornish clifftop and, using intricate and perfectly timed ‘loops’, transported the audience to a tidal environment, which was no doubt familiar and comforting to many.
Former Chetham’s student, Hamilton, composed In Beautiful May in 2008, but Grant’s performance (again, accompanied by Reiser’s back-of-the-room wizardry) made the piece utterly of the moment. This interpretation sets Manchester Collective apart from its peers.
George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae concluded the set. Apparently it was written in 1969 after the composer heard a recording of a humpback whale singing deep in the Pacific. Rhys at the piano, Alex Jakeman on flute and 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 and donned masks while playing beneath blue-filtered lights.
With Adam Szabo and Rakhi Singh at the helm, Manchester Collective are in a state of permanent evolution. They are a joy, an education, an escape, as well as proof that pushing boundaries and taking risks reaps rewards.
Images by Chris Payne
Click here for more information about The Voice of the Whale tour.