Saturday, 25 January 2020

Audience development and evangelism at the core of what they do: I chat to Adam Szabo of the Manchester Collective

The Manchester Collective at the White Hotel, Salford
The Manchester Collective at the White Hotel, Salford
Having had a busy 2019 with its biggest tour yet, the Manchester Collective launched the New Year with a bang, with Ecstatic Dances a programme with Poul Høxbro which toured to Leeds, Glasgow, London and Manchester this month, and there are plenty more exciting things planned. On the group's Twitter page is the tag 'Radical human experiences through live music'. I was intrigued, and I caught up with CEO and co-founder Adam Szabo over coffee earlier this month, to find out more.

Ecstatic Dances - Poul Høxbro & Manchester Collective at the Stoller Hall
Ecstatic Dances - Poul Høxbro & Manchester Collective at the Stoller Hall
Ecstatic Dances was built around Poul Høxbro, a Danish musician who plays pipes and percussion; he was joined by a string quartet and electric bass for music which ranged from Thomas Ades and Peter Warlock to ancient tunes from Scotland and Scandinavia. We speak before the show debuted, and Høxbro was to be telling stories during the show, something that the group had never done before and when we met, Adam said that they had tried it out for the first time with the players the previous day, and the result had been magical. Høxbro plays various different traditional pipes, highly restrictive instruments, along with percussion like bronze bells. Adam calls it a unique combination of instruments in this music.

Ecstatic Dances was built by the same team as their 2019 programme, Scirocco. Their biggest hit yet, Scirorro toured to 15 venues in the UK and Switzerland, and featured African musicians Abel Selaocoe, plus Sidiki Dembele and Alan Keary from Chesaba, with music from Stravinsky and Haydn, to African folk songs and Danish folk songs. The programme will be returning this year, and will be going on a world tour during the 2020/21 season. And Ecstatic Dances was built by the same team.

There are three further programmes to come this season, and in May the group will be launching its 2020/21 season, which will include the release of two CDs as well as six touring programmes. Adam describes the group's success, since he founded it in 2016, as something of a runaway freight train, but in a good way!

Characterful and flavourful


The Manchester Collective is a flexible ensemble, their last tour involved a string orchestra and Ecstatic Dances uses six players, but there is a core of string players on which they draw. It is a project led group, touring eight programmes a year to a few venues. Adam describes their programmes as characterful and flavourful, making them easier for a culturally inexperienced audience to get on board. Ecstatic Dances features ancient songs being brought to life along with folk tales, something that Adam thinks will be appealing to people who are not necessarily subscribers to orchestral concerts, and when we spoke the Manchester concert had already sold out.

The Manchester Collective in their programme Paradise Lost
The Manchester Collective in their programme Paradise Lost
Part of the group's ethos is to connect with audiences; using narrative to open up the works being performed and making the  audience part of the experience. Adam does not feel that this is pandering to the audience, and in fact sees the group as opening up the concert format for the artists as well, for those for whom the standard concert of overture, concerto and symphony is very restricting.

The group's repertoire mixes incredible new music with incredible old music which is not in the repertoire, and Adam points out that the standard concert repertoire can involve quite a narrow band of works. He sees variety as a good thing for audiences, and they are getting more diverse faces both on and off the concert platform. With Scirocco, where the group collaborated with an African trio, they saw faces in the venues that they don't usually see, with a highly diverse mix of race, gender, culture, colour and socio-economic bands.

There is no reason that a new work cannot be the focus of a programme


New music remains an important part of the group's ethos, they have just premiered a new Edmund Finnis work, The Centre is Everywhere, and they found that the new work was a draw, audience members came for the Finnis and then stayed for the Strauss Metamorphosen also in the programme. Adam sees this as just a question of framing the new pieces, to create excitement and buzz, and there is no reason that a new work cannot be the focus of a programme.

The group has been developing a partnership with the theatre company, Clod Ensemble and they have been working with one of the group's artistic directors, composer Paul Clark. This has normalised the performance of new music with the group, and pretty much all their programmes feature new music of some sort. Adam adds that whilst preserving the canon of classical music is a superb thing, concentrating on the main 80 pieces in the repertoire does not make sense and that the concert experience should be a living bringing artistic thing. The aim with new music should be to create a rich, diverse body of music for the future.

The Manchester Collective at the Invisible Wind Factory in Liverpool
The Manchester Collective at the Invisible Wind Factory in Liverpool
Adam started out as a cellist, and he founded the Manchester Collective in 2016 (with music director and violinist Rakhi Singh). Since that time the group has grown, so that he retired as a cellist two years ago to concentrate on the Manchester Collective, and the group now has a staff of four, and they have worked with around 96 players in the last four seasons.

They have never had the luxury of settling in habits as the picture is always changing


Adam admits that the problem with an organisation that grows so quickly is that everything breaks all the time, systems that worked cease to be effective. But this has meant that it kept them quite vital, they have never had the luxury of settling in habits as the picture is always changing around them.

Adam hopes that the growth of the last few years will continue as they now build an international reputation. There was a Swiss tour last year with one to the Netherlands planned for March this year, and they are looking further afield. But there is the need to balance this with tours of the UK, always keeping audience development and evangelism at the core of what they do.

Some exciting cross pollination


All their programmes tour to Manchester and London, and in both places they play in diverse venues; in London it is Kings Place and the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham, in Manchester it is the new Stoller Hall at Chetham's School, the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) and The White Hotel which is a former garage in Salford. Whilst this pairing of regular and edgier venues might seem to generate a dichotomy, it has led to some exciting cross pollination with some of the Kings Place audience making its way to Peckham and vice versa.

The group has a close partnership with the RNCM, as well as performing there they work with the students, recent experimental sessions with students included an orchestral lab project which looked at 'how to pull at the seams of the orchestra concert format'. And they have teaching links also at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

The Manchester Collective in Black Angels
The Manchester Collective in Black Angels, a programme which featured
George Crumb's Black Angels and Schubert's Death and the Maiden
March 2020 sees a string quartet programme Cries and Whispers which includes Britten's String Quartet No. 1, Jörg Widmann's String Quartet No. 2 "Choralequartett" (2003/6), Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 and Gesualdo madrigals. Another programme coming up is The Voice of the Whale, which has been built with Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season in mind, with George Crumb's Vox Balanae or Voice of the Whale plus music by Alex Groves, Molly Joyce, Andrew Hamilton and Takemitsu. And they finish the season with a pairing of Enescu's Octet and what Adam describes as a 'kookie first half!'.



And the Summer will be busy too, they are spending two weeks at a festival in France, with visits to the Ryedale Festival and to Llangollen.

Full information about the Manchester Collective's programmes from the group's website

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Maxim Vengerov: celebrating 40 years since his stage debut with new recordings & a new relationship with IDAGIO - interview
  • Beethoven Odyssey: Daniel Barenboim completes his sonata performances at the Philharmonie in Paris (★★★★) - concert review
  • Beethoven marathon: François-Frédéric Guy directs all the piano concertos from the keyboard in one concert in Paris (★★★★) - concert review
  • A flaming affair: Berlioz' La damnation de Faust at the Philharmonie de Paris -
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  • From the rare to the popular: Fauré and Poulenc from Bertrand de Billy and the London Philharmonic (★★★★) - concert review
  • Bach Round-Up: violin, piano, organ, recorder, viol, choral and orchestra by Bach and his cousin Johann Bernard  - cd review
  • European song exploration: Malcolm Martineau's Decades - A Century of Song reaches the 1840s (★★★★) - CD review
  • An engaging Baroque recital from City Music Foundation artist, Anna Cavaliero - concert review
  • Notable debut: the Armenian State Symphony orchestra's first Barbican appearance gave us music from Armenia alongside Bruch and Ravel with the orchestra's artist in residence, Maxim Vengerov (★★★★) - concert review
  • An anarchic approach to the everyday: Bastard Assignments debut album (★★★½) - CD review
  • Songs from the Soil: Theatre of Voices launches Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season  (★★★½) - concert review
  • Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House (★★★★½) - opera review
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