Northern Soul: Manchester Collective, Black Angels, Leeds Town Hall

Colin Petch, 27 Feb 2019, Northern Soul


Leeds Town Hall has seen its fair share of excitement since Cuthbert Brodrick first laid out his plans for the building in the 19th century.

Although much of building labour was lost to the Crimean War, the city’s majestic centrepiece was finally opened by Queen Victoria in 1858. Since then, thousands of internationally acclaimed artists have delighted Yorkshire audiences at this famous Headrow address.

Through a maze of corridors, deep beneath the iconic Victoria Hall – and less well known than its bigger sibling upstairs – is the Crypt. Previous incarnations of the space have included a temporary library, an air-raid shelter and a wartime feeding station.

On February 22, the Crypt provided the most atmospheric environment possible for Manchester Collective’s eagerly awaited return to West Yorkshire, with their sumptuous interpretation of Schubert’s String Quartet in D minor, Death and the Maiden, together with George Crumb’s Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land.

There is something about the manner of the Collective’s managing director Adam Szabo (I find him perched on a folding chair before the concert) that says ‘we have worked so hard and we really hope you enjoy what we’ve created’. Even if the ensemble banged pan lids with a ladle for an hour, I would still leave feeling that I’d been part of something incredibly special.

No kitchen utensils were harmed in the creation of their latest masterpiece. Nevertheless, the haunting sounds that emanated from carefully arranged crystal glasses as part of Crumb’s Black Angelsleft the audience moved and in awe of this group’s technical capabilities.

Rakhi Singh, Eva Thorarinsdottir, Ruth Gibson and Nick Trygstad’s interpretation of Franz Schubert’s 1824 work, which the latter composed following illness (and as he stared death in the face) was urgent and complex. For those gathered in the subterranean world of the Town Hall, it was astonishing and moving in equal measure.

The title piece of the concert, American George Crumb’s 1970 Black Angels, was composed over the space of 12 months for electric string quartet during 20th century global upheaval. Subtitled Thirteen Images from the Dark Land,the work perfectly captures the seemingly endless tension and agony of the Vietnam War which consumed the US and beyond during the period.

Crumb’s score looks more like the blueprint for a nuclear submarine than the basis for an enthralling musical work. As is now the norm at any Manchester Collective gathering, concert-goers are actively encouraged to investigate, explore and question what this outstanding bunch of musicians are trying to convey. At Leeds the capacity audience relished the opportunity to pour over scores, inspect instruments, and generally bask in the glow of being in the company of one of the most ground-breaking ensembles in the UK today. Next for Black Angels are visits to Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester, Hull and Salford. If you attend just one concert in 2019, make it this one.

The final word should go the incomparable Rakhi Singh. Surely this arrangement has taken months of work, with its complexity and interplay between musicians?

“It’s been exhausting. We started on Monday and have rehearsed virtually ever since,” she told me.

Although I exit the Crypt certain I misheard her (could anyone achieve such a feat in mere days?), as I reflect on (another) awe-inspiring evening with Manchester Collective, on the drive home, I understand. This group is much more than the hardest-working musicians you could encounter. They are Alchemists. Enchanters. Engineers. Storytellers. See them now while it’s still possible to experience intimate recitals in unique venues. Their star is very much on the rise. On their next visit to Leeds, we may not all squeeze into the Crypt.