Wednesday 18 August 2021

High Energy: an evening of firsts from the Manchester Collective and Mahan Esfahani at the BBC Proms

The Manchester Collective in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms (Photo c/o Manchester Collective)
The Manchester Collective in rehearsal at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms (Photo c/o Manchester Collective)

Gorecki, Finnis, Eastman, Tabakova, Horovitz; Mahan Esfahani, Manchester Collective; BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 August 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Five proms premieres spanning 50 years; a torrent of energy and imagination in the Manchester Collective's proms debut

The Manchester Collective, directed from the violin by Rakhi Singh, made its BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 17 August 2021. They were joined by harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani for a terrific programme of works that had never been performed at the Proms before. This was notionally a contemporary concert, with Edmund Finnis' The Centre is Everywhere (2019) and Dobrinka Tabakova's Suite in Old Style, 'The Court Jester Amareu' (2006), but two works dated from the 1980s, Henryck Gorecki's Harpsichord Concerto and Julius Eastman's The Holy Presence of Joan 'Arc and one from 1965, Joseph Horovitz' Jazz Harpsichord Concerto. This was the first time a work by Julius Eastman was played at the proms, and the first complete work at the proms by Joseph Horovitz (who is 95, and the first movement of whose Captain Noah and the Floating Zoo was performed in 1997).

Formed in 2016, Rakhi Singh is music director [see my interview with her] with Adam Szabo as chief executive. I chatted to Adam about the ensemble last year, [see my interview] and he explained the group's philosophy of 'characterful and flavourful' programmes so it is 'easier for a culturally inexperienced audience to get on board', mixing new music with old music, often works not in the regular repertoire.  Though the group performs at venues such as Manchester's Stoller Hall and London's King's Place, they are just as likely to be found at the CLF Art Cafe in Peckham or The White Hotel which is a former garage in Salford. At the Royal Albert Hall they performed with contact microphones (sound engineer Joseph Reiser) which with the dramatic lighting brought something of the club-nite vibe to the hall, and the 16 players managed to fill the hall with vibrant sound.

We were grabbed from the word go with the furious energy of Henryck Gorecki's Harpsichord Concerto. Whilst the work has Baroque-inspired structures underneath, this is a world away from the composer's best known work the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Written in 1980 for the Polish harpsichordist Elżbieta Chojnacka, the work is short but its two movements present a torrent of sound. The opening featured chorale-like music on the strings, played with intense energy by Manchester Collective seemingly set on making the hyperactive harpsichord part, brilliantly played by Mahan Esfahani, inaudible. Throughout the work there was this sense of struggle between the two. There were luminous moments, and during the second movement an element of dialogue, though the furious energy was present throughout. The style was a sort of minimalism on acid, the block harmonies and repetitions were there but the sound world was different; Esfahani and the Manchester Collective brought real excitment to the piece with a sound which filled the Royal Albert Hall.

The Manchester Collective commissioned The Centre is Everywhere from Edmund Finnis in 2019. The group has developed a strong relationship with the composer [they premiered his String Quartet No. 2 at the Spitalfields Music Festival last month, see my review] and this was the first major work of his that they played. The 15 string players were placed in an arc and the initial sounds were all texture rather than timbre, verging on white noise and making good use of the amplification. Fragments of more structured music appeared and disappeared, coalescing and dispersing, until gradually the piece took on greater musical structure but still with frayed edges. Throughout, the music wandered in and out of focus, structures and repeating motifs over a wash of sound, occasionally busy such as the moment with four furiously canonic violins over slower moving material, yet sometimes the background wash came to the fore and eventually the piece subsided back to the textured white noise of the opening. The title comes from an anonymous Medieval definition of God, 'an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere'.

The first half ended with The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc which was written in 1981 for ten cellos by the American composer Julius Eastman. Eastman is a tantalising figure, part of the new music movement in the USA in the 1970s, as a performer he was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1973 for Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King. Eastman never fitted well into academia, and his music also has a furious independence, a complex and unpredictable post-Minimalism that was not mainstream. He was a black, gay man at a time when contemporary classical music seemed dominated by (apparently) straight white men, and his 1975 performance of John Cage's Songbooks, incorporating a lecture on homosexual love that included a naked man as an anatomical example, incensed Cage, who was in the audience. Cage (who was 63 at the time and also gay, yet from a very different generation both musically and socialogically) commented afterwards that Eastman's '[ego]... is closed in on homosexuality. And we know this because he has no other ideas.'

Many of Eastman's scores were lost as a result of personal problems (a dependence on drugs, eviction and homelessness), and much has be recovered and reconstructed by Eastman's friends including the composer Mary Jane Leach, whose recovery of an early 1980s recording of The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc enabled cellist Clarice Jensen to transcribe the work as only a fragment of Eastman's manuscript survived. 

This was the first performance The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc in a new version for string orchestra. After some chanting from the players we launched into a heavy-rock inspired cello and bass line which evidently comes from a 1978 Patti Smith song, Rock n Roll N***** (a song controversial from the outset because of its use of the N word, yet in which Smith uses the word as meaning a rebellious and honorable outsider). Whilst this is typical of the way Eastman mixed rock, minimalism and other influences, there are also political considerations, choosing the song to reflect his own position and perhaps that of Joan of Arc as a controversial outsider. Eastman offered the piece as 'a reminder to those who think they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice and murder'.

Over this driving beat came washes of canonic string lines, growing in intensity yet always with a driving rhythm. The whole piece (all 20 minutes of it) pounded away with this intense rhythm, usually in the bass but sometimes in the upper strings. There was something of an hypnotic feel and in a way it was far closer to club music (in his spoken introduction Adam Szabo had mentioned Frank Zappa and Led Zeppelin). There were moments when it seemed to unwind, but never quite did so, a solo violin appeared at one point, but the energy, the need to go on, continued furious, furious to the end.

After the interval we entered a somewhat different world. Dobrinka Tabakova wrote Suite in Old Style, 'The Court Jester Amareu' in 2006, the second of three suites that she wrote for viola player Maxim Rysanov. Originally written for viola and string quintet, the version for viola and string orchestra (with harpsichord) was premiered by Rysanov with the Bavarian Radio Chamber Orchestra.

Tabakova creates a suite of short dances inspired by the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau (using his name in anagram and basing the motif for the final movement on it), yet filtered through a very 21st century ear and in Manchester Collective's performance with viola player Ruth Gibson, incorporating a feeling of high energy which very much linked the work to other works in the programme. Notionally in three movements, each movement was split into smaller sections and the whole had a deliberate structural symmetry to it. After an opening medieval dance, yet with added percussion including a Big Bass Drum which brought the sound world into the 21st century, Ruth Gibson's viola came on from off-stage with a vigorous and virtuosic viola solo. More dance movements followed, with a fabulous quasi-1930s waltz, a rather jazz-ish movement which reminded me of works such as Geoffrey Toye's The Haunted Ballroom. The centre of the work 'The Rose Garden, by Moonlight' was richly romantic with the hauntingly melancholy viola creating a rather fabulous sound-world, duetting both with Rakhi Singh's violin and Mahan Esfahani's harpsichord. The final movement began as a perky fugato led by the viola, again duetting with different instruments, but gradually we return to the opening material in reverse, imaginatively re-worked so that the opening prelude became a vigorous ensemble dance at the end.

Joseph Horovitz came to the UK in 1938 at the age of 12 as his family fled the Anschluss in Austria (his father Bela Horovitz would become a co-founder of the Phaidon Press). His teachers included Egon Wellesz, Gordon Jacob and Nadia Boulanger, and he has had a long and distinguished career writing 16 ballets, two operas, film scores, a significant number of concertos and a fine repertory for brass band and wind band. He remains best known, however, for his light-hearted 1970 Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo, yet it remains embarassing that his music has not been more embedded in contemporary musical life. If you are interested in learning more, then a good place to start is Donald MacLeod's Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3 devoted to Horovitz and his teacher, Gordon Jacob [download Podcast on BBC website].

During the 1960s, Horovitz played the harpsichord with the Philomusica of London, directed by the harpsichordist George Malcolm. During a break in rehearsals, Horovitz heard Malcolm improvising jazz solos. It turned out that Malcolm had learned to play jazz during the Second World War when he was an RAF Band Leader. The result was the Jazz Harpsichord Concerto from 1965.

To the combination of harpsichord (Mahan Esfahani) and strings (Manchester Collective), Horovitz adds drum-kit (Alan Taylor) and bass (Misha Mullov Abbado), thus creating a sort of jazz trio skewed by the fact that the keyboard is a harpsichord not a piano. The sound-world had a distinct whiff of Jacques Loussier (1934-2019) about it, an intriguing combination of jazz-riffs, classical structures (the opening movement is sonata form), relaxed jazz yet with a harpsichord. The result was complex but fun, the harmonies never quite settling into the jazz forms. The second movement opened with a big solo for bass player Misha Mullov Abbado (himself a jazz composer with his own ensemble) which led to a sort of slow blues from the strings but with a harpsichord solo over which added spice to the harmonies. A big drum solo from Alan Taylor opened the final movement which as fast and jazzy with a very, very busy harpsichord part under which all sorts of fun happened in the strings.

A terrific piece which deserves more outings and certainly makes you wonder about the rest of Horovitz' output, there are at least six more concertos for a start.

The enthusiastic response of the audience was rewarded with an encore, Orawa by Polish compser Wojciech Kilar. The programme is currently on BBC Sounds.

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