Open Culture: Adam Szabo in Conversation

Uncover, 5 Oct 2018, Open Culture


It’s been almost two years since Manchester Collective was formed. It was founded, says Szabo, for one simple reason – ‘because nobody was programming the kind of work that we wanted to perform. For us, it was originally about producing great shows, and programming music that felt risky and exciting. Along the way, we discovered that we had a real passion for building new audiences, and that it was great fun to take this work out of the concert hall and into a range of offbeat, alternative venues.’

The collective’s mission statement is ‘radical human experiences through music.’ Can he expand on this idea?

‘This idea is incredibly important to us’, said Szabo. ‘It’s far too often that we go to concerts in the classical world and come away feeling something like “Well, that was nice…”

We’re not interested in “nice”. The idea of radical human experiences is about crafting a show that our audiences will have a strong, emotional response to. People might love some of the music, they might hate some of the music, but the one thing that is for certain is that it’s not going to be a forgettable, lukewarm experience. These shows, and the works that we perform, are polarising. Art is too important, the stakes are too high, for performances to be a “meh” experience.’

This is Manchester Collective’s third time performing at the Invisible Wind Factory; they’ve also played a cotton mill, post office and steel mill and will take their 2018-19 season to, amongst others, Newcastle’s Cobalt Studios and infamous Salford nightclub the White Hotel. What’s important about bringing music that’s usually heard in much more formal settings to venues like these?

‘Two things. Firstly, when we play at a venue like the Invisible Wind Factory, (a venue that is basically a large warehouse in an industrial area, but that already has a reputation for producing incredible live music), we reach an entirely new audience. There are so many people who are super engaged in live shows, in culture, in art, who love tricky, experimental, crazy beautiful music, but who wouldn’t describe themselves as lovers of classical music.’

‘When we play in these venues,’ he says, ‘we can attract those people – the people who wouldn’t normally attend a show at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool or Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. We remove one of the main barriers that prevent new audiences from engaging with the music that we play – that is, that most of that music is performed in large, intimidating concert halls, halls that generally serve an affluent, white, conservative, middle class, middle aged audience.’

He continues, ‘the other important part of the picture is that when we produce a world class show at an alternative venue, we get critics from the establishment who come along to those shows, and maybe start thinking “hmmm… maybe you can have this music performed at a high level for a great audience without being in a concert hall.” From both directions, we’re rebuilding the perception of the music we perform.’

In a short time the collective has already spent time as Ensemble in Residence at Stoller Hall, appeared in several important publications and been featured by Classic FM and the BBC. How do they plan to maintain such a stratospheric trajectory?

‘We have big goals for the Collective. At the moment, we’re growing at a slightly terrifying pace – we played our first ever show in January last year, and this season (18/19) we perform over 50 shows across 12 venues, and tour to Europe for the first time.

Building new audiences is always going to be a core part of our DNA, and as we continue to grow, the productions we can bring to those audiences are getting larger, more ambitious, and even more exciting!’

‘Romantic Hero’ marks the first time pianist Jayson Gillham has performed with the collective. ‘Jayson is a bit of a superstar, really lovely’ says Szabo. So how did he come to be involved?

‘We were already familiar with his playing and fortunately, we also had a pre-existing relationship with his manager; so we asked him whether he would be interested in coming on tour with us and thankfully he said yes!’

Some of the shows Szabo and his collaborators have put together in the past have been real melting pots of genres and disciplines, featuring artists as diverse as electronic artist Vessel and cellist Oliver Coates.

This variety, Adam tells us, forms a core part of what they do.

‘Over the course of this season we cover a huge range of repertoire: we’re performing a cult work by George Crumb (Black Angels) in a one-off midnight performance at The White Hotel nightclub; touring to Kings Place in London for a revival performance of our show about electronics and live strings, 100 Demons; and producing a staged production of one of the most controversial works ever written – Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg. Those projects are just a small part of the season – we promise to keep surprising our audiences’.

Szabo generally develops programmes alongside Music Director Rakhi Singh, often years in advance. It’s a fun process, but a tough one. ‘Our shows can go through many, many iterations before we settle on the programme that audiences come to experience’. So why romantic heroes?

There was something about the works in this particular programme, said Adam, that conjured up this idea of the Romantic Hero in their imaginations. ‘The Schumann Quintet in particular is a super passionate work – very earnest and swashbuckling – almost like the fantasy of teenage boy, still convinced that he is invincible. Pianists in the 19th century were regarded as the superstars of the classical world – passionate, intense musicians that wowed audiences with their incredible technique and musicianship. So – Romantic Hero.

So other than a packed season of shows, what’s next? The collective were featured in an NTS broadcast earlier this year; do they have any similar projects in the works?

‘We had a great time on that one. NTS actually approached us and asked us to put together a two-hour show. We were totally green, never having done anything like that before, but were really excited about the prospect of taking listeners on a journey through some really disparate music. We played some of our own material, but also lots of our favourite tunes from other artists and composers. The set is still up on the NTS website – you can listen to it here’.

‘We’d love to do more – maybe someday we’ll have our own, regular show on NTS. Or 6Music! Who knows what the future will hold…’