Benjamin P Jackson: Black Angels at Leeds Town Hall ★★★★

Benjamin P Jackson, 23 Feb 2019, Benjamin P Jackson

As an ex-music student, it can often be quite tempting to look for ways to make ‘classical’ music (and by that, I am referring to the western classical tradition and its more recent extensions) more relevant to younger generations. On the surface, this seems like a great thing to do, but last night’s performance by the Manchester Collective was such a fantastic illustration of why classical music is, and always will be, relevant to all generations. As an audience member, I was not surrounded by people my own age, but of all ages and backgrounds, and there was something remarkable and special about this. How had the Manchester Collective created an environment such as that the music they were about to perform appealed to such a wide range of people?

I think the answer lies in their approach to music-making. It was so refreshing to feel so at ease at a concert. Gone are the pre-conditions of classical music-making and the traditions of the concert hall, instead, replaced by a simple but thought-out respect for the music, instruments and musicians. The performers played the entire concert facing each other in a square, while the audience was fully surrounding them. Simple but effective colour-changing lighting elevated the experience in what was an extremely well conceived programme and performance of just two very powerful pieces for quartet.

The first, Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, better known as ‘Death and the Maiden’, is one of those pieces that always sticks in my head. There’s a very specific feel to this piece, one of intensity, real masterful balance of tone and a sort of fun devilishness. The performers nailed every single one of these, and aside from a few slightly distracting wobbles from the first violinist (who, in fairness, performed a very difficult part outstandingly overall), the performance was incredibly captivating. The natural growth and flow of the music was made incredibly exciting, with some of the most beautiful moments, especially in the second movement, incredibly performed. There was an incredible unintentional moment where a speaker was buzzing at exactly the tonic of the second movement once it faded away, which I thought was actually quite remarkable. I like to think they did this on purpose, but that’s unlikely. Some of the quieter moments did lack a little intensity due to some of the fizzling violin lines being incredibly technically difficult, however most of these were well played and the louder, more intense moments were suitably brilliant.

George Crumb’s ‘Black Angels’ was next, and the visibility of tam-tams, glasses, extra bows and a mixing desk signified that we were about to hear something unique. Subtitled ‘Thirteen Images from the Dark Land’, this piece quotes the second movement from Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ and continues a dark and haunting programme. The lack of programme notes to read as an audience member actually made me listen more closely, and made the experience more engaging (I knew I could always research exactly what was happening in each moment after the fact). Performance-wise, the piece was executed excellently, with real drama, tension and aplomb from all performers. Crumb’s imagery was heightened by a clear, careful knowledge of the music and a great overall interpretation. I really got the sense that the images of the piece were of something in a plane beyond simple visuals. The references to other well-known works (such as ‘Danse Macabre’) were immediately apparent, and the more forceful moments and returning threnodies were both terrifying and exciting, while the quieter, more tense and delicate moments captured something of a dark beauty. The amplification required was fed through stereo speakers, which was a little odd seeing as everything else was in the round - but this detail became inconsequential once I stopped noticing. Vocal parts, often ominously counting in different languages, were excitingly and precisely executed, with a mysteriously dark ending which will no doubt leave the music etched into the minds of the audience long after the concert has finished.

Looked at holistically, this was a blueprint for a successful concert, a varied but connected programme which made pieces written hundreds of years apart seem equally relevant to a vast and diverse audience in a carefully thought through setting which enhanced and respected the mostly excellently performed music whilst also inviting the audience in to the experience.

The Manchester Collective are touring with Black Angels in various cities in the north until 2nd March. They are then returning with their interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations from 25th April.