Monday 25 April 2022

High energy: Manchester Collective and Abel Selaocoe in The Oracle at Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Oracle - Manchester Collective & Abel Selaocoe in rehearsal at Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo Manchester Collective)
The Oracle - Manchester Collective & Abel Selaocoe in rehearsal at Queen Elizabeth Hall (Photo Manchester Collective)

The Oracle -
Vivaldi, Picforth, Leith, Selaocoe, Stravinsky, Levy; Abel Selaocoe, Manchester Collective; Queen Elizabeth Hall
Sunday 24 April 2022 (★★★★) 

The force of nature that is Abel Selaocoe animated an evening with the Manchester Collective into a bewildering and intoxicating experience

The Manchester Collective (leader Rakhi Singh) made their Queen Elizabeth Hall debut on Sunday 24 April 2022 with The Oracle, the final date of their current tour with cellist/composer Abel Selaocoe who was joined by Mohamed Gueye (African percussion) and Alan Keary (bass guitar) for a programme that moved from Picforth's In Nomine and Vivaldi's Concerto for Strings in G Minor, RV 156 to Stravinsky's Concerto in D for Strings to music by Micah Levy, Oliver Leith and three of Selacoe's own pieces with the whole programme linked by a series of improvisations.

To describe Selacoe as a cellist/composer is something of a misnomer, he was more a force of nature, animating the whole evening, moving between playing the cello with startling virtuosity to singing to addressing the audience to simply playing the bass line in the ensemble to getting the audience singing along. Yet it wasn't the Abel Selacoe show (though the response of the audience suggested that they would have been delighted if it was). This was about making music together, as part of a vibrant ensemble. Selacoe's style moves easily and quickly between his classical training, his South African roots and a variety of other African influences, and the Manchester Collective with their poly-stylistic approach to programming, proved ideal partners, responding to his direction and providing improvised backing, but well able to take to the stage in their own right with a strong sense of personality.

We began with an improvisation, a distinctly spiky cello solo led to more folk-inspired music with Gueye and Keary, including Selaocoe singing, finally they set up a groove over which Selaocoe riffed to striking effect. Finally the musicians of Manchester Collective joined in as well, changing the atmosphere and leading directly to the Vivaldi (where Selaocoe joined the bass line in a simple yet intent manner). The opening movement was delicate, stylised but very urgent and intent with a clear feeling of dance rhythms. Towards the end of the first movement, Gueye moved to the fore with a drum solo which, dazzling though it was, had a sense of demanding that he be paid attention to! The delicate and transparent slow movement led to a crisply vivid final movement, where drums and bass guitar discreetly contributed to the rhythms and, again, we had a sense of the dance.

Picforth's In nomine followed, a strange 16th century piece by a composer about whom nothing is known. Performed by a melancholy solo viola with pizzicato strings, the sense of the strange polyphony became more nebulous (and perhaps more modern), leading to a feeling of more modern dance underneath the melody. This led almost directly to 'Full like drips' from Honey Siren by Oliver Leith where apparently straight-forward chords were rendered highly atmospheric via pitch-bends and extra interference from individual lines, creating a nebulous effect that was more akin to electronica than string music.

Another improvisation, this time freewheeling and edgy, leading to a more structured solo with Selaocoe singing, and finally dissolving and evaporating, as if the energy built up had dissipated. In Selaocoe's Camagu, written for the tour, he uses a toy violin which, when plucked, evoked a traditional Tanzanian instrument. Thus the piece began from edgy and rough material, yet when the strings of the Manchester Collective echoed Selaocoe, the material became smoothed out, but rhythm and groove were not far away and eventually a strong rhythmic structure was set up over which all sorts of things could happen, the strings in unison, Selaocoe singing, the audience clapping and then joining in with a call and response with Selaocoe. But finally things wound down, though not without diversions. Throughout Selaocoe performed with amazing energy, and he energised the performers and the audience too. The result was a piece full of good things that seemed based around his personality. At times, it felt to my ears to be somewhat formless, but that probably says more about my own cultural limitations.

After the interval we began with Stravinsky's Concerto in D for strings (written in 1946 for Paul Sacher). The first movement moved between energy and impulse and more gentle swaying, whilst the lovely tune in the central Arioso movement was almost pure Tchaikovsky. The third movement ended the piece with vivid energy and impulsive, almost driving rhythms.

Selaocoe's Tshepo was inspired by the idea of faith, and he explained about the varied styles of worship and prayer that took place in the townships where he was brought up. The piece involved singing and playing, not just him but the musicians of the Manchester Collective too. So we moved from a haunting slow melody (over pizzicato) to a stronger groove where Selaocoe got the audience singing too, then he improvised over the top of this. The result was highly evocative of a particular time and place. Things gradually unwound, and yet we had a clear feeling of the cultural inspirations behind the music, complex, diverse and intriguing.

Mica Levy's Love, for strings and two synthesizers, was originally written for Jonathan Glazer's film Under the Skin, which combined a shimmering string tremolando with a melody, slides and pitch bends in marvellous fashion, building to something rather intense. This moved directly into an arrangement of a Danish folksong Brudestykke (Bridal Piece), originally created by the Danish String Quartet. Gently haunting at first, the rhythm built and we were back in the groove, but then things evaporated.

The final work was Selaocoe's Kea Mo Rata, about loving with no inhibitions. This was very much a 'talking concert', both Adam Szabo and Rakhi Singh from the Manchester Collective chatted to the audience, whilst Selaocoe not only introduced his music but talked about the philosophy behind it; his philosophies, it was clear that the man and the meaning were closely intertwined. Music that seemed vivid and angry led to a groove over which Selaocoe and the Manchester Collective spread their magic, at times Selaocoe duetted (duelled) with both Gueye and Keary, and both were highly active figures throughout the programme.  A quietly intense yet virtuosic cello solo from Selaocoe led to a finale that was pure Hi-NRG.

The response from the capacity audience was outstanding, and of course we were treated to an encore, a piece about loving your mother (even if you don't think she's nice). Selaocoe described the piece as a celebration of all mothers, and it proved to be an amazing outpouring of energy in all ways, and yes, he got the audience singing too.

The programme will be streamed free on Sunday 1 May 2022 at 4pm, see Manchester Collective website.

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