The live experience; Manchester Collective

“His Messiah he let me down… I won’t put Holy Words in his hands anymore, to be so mistreated. So wrote Handel’s hornet’s nest librettist Charles Jennens in 1743, clearly – and disconcertingly – unimpressed by the composer’s masterpiece, a work which now stands at the pinnacle of the repertoire. If the original gave Jennens the fumes, he shudders to think what he would suffer after seeing the costumes, dancing and light show that ‘enhanced’ his latest incarnation at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane . Apoplexy, probably.

Classical Everywhere is a company that aims to change the way music is presented and doesn’t mince words. Its artistic director and conductor, Gregory Batsleer, focuses on the jugular in his program note: “Classical music is considered boring and stuffy. It’s not a form of entertainment that most people can relate to. For real? He clearly hasn’t been to an opera house recently. He has no doubts that composers “would approve of finding exciting new approaches to performing their music, especially in ways designed to heighten and enhance spirit and storytelling.” Okay, but this Messiah it had just the opposite effect, muddying his message, cluttering his presentation, and paralyzing the flow of storytelling.

Handel was the supreme playwright. He knew how to balance pathos with bold exclamations of hope and redemption. Interrupting that flow with a long, pretentious poem (and cutting fine music to make room for it) did little for our understanding. Showing dull, swirling screensaver images against a background doesn’t enhance the drama inherent in every note of this score. And while some of Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography was undoubtedly graceful, they often intruded on a stage already crammed to the rafters with English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, soloists and actors (when it came time for The Trumpet Shall Sound, it was so far backstage that it was hardly heard).

Thank goodness soloists Danielle de Niese, Idunnu Münch, Nicky Spence and Cody Quattlebaum, who brought some quality singing to the evening, even if De Niese seemed uncomfortable, perhaps something to do with having to climb into a series of bizarre costumes between each aria.

That’s enough. let’s talk about Manchester Collective, a flexible contemporary music ensemble that truly aims to reshape the future of classical music. He says he believes “in the risks, mistakes, danger and peril in live performance.” Arts Council England applauds him and added him to their list of funded organizations this year – good news drowned out by continued protests over his recent politically motivated cuts.

Like Classical Everywhere, this ensemble doesn’t mind using some colored lights and dry ice to add some atmosphere, but then they have something really authentic to present: always new interesting music. Last week, three works for string orchestra written in the last 10 years by the Americans Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980) and Caroline Shaw (b. 1982) had their world premieres by the British composer Oliver Leith (b. 1990).

Barefoot violinist Rakhi Singh is the ensemble’s dynamic conductor, guiding 17 players with authority and skill, not least in Mazzoli You know me from here. A heavily accented two-note motif drives this exhilarating piece, taking us through strife and loneliness to a place of calm serenity, denoted by an extended and lyrical cello solo. By Shaw Plan & Elevation it is both a sonic image of the exterior of Dumbarton Oaks, the American country home haven for composers, and a nebulous blueprint for the plans we make for our lives: plans that inevitably change as we grow older. Key-based, it uses chords, bent or plucked, clustered or spread, to set in motion a brilliantly imposing and instantly captivating architectural edifice.

Less impressive was that of Leith or wisp, a piece designed to reflect the insubstantial nature of the phantom light of folklore which also serves as a metaphor for an impossible goal to achieve. He makes several attempts to leave but soon gets nowhere: the glissandi slip into silence; trills and harmonics disappear; a rustic jig can barely assert itself. The collective likes to take risks, and this was definitely one of them.

There were few risks – but many dangers – in Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, in Rudolf Barshai’s transcription for string orchestra of the searing String Quartet No. This sounded of the highest quality, perhaps reflecting the confidence that even a small accolade (just £120,000 a year) can lead to an ensemble with the vision and ability to truly see into the future.

Star ratings (out of five)
Handel’s Messiah: The Inhabit Experience ★★
Manchester Collective
★★★★

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