Wednesday, 16 October 2019

MUSIC REVIEW: Manchester Collective: Sirocco - The RNCM, Manchester

Abel Selaocoe is no stranger to Manchester having lived and studied here for many years. Ex-alumnus of the RNCM, Selaocoe told the audience that performing in the RNCM concert hall was like “a whirlwind of dreams that happened before” and indeed whirlwind is a fitting word for this evening’s concert. Sirocco, a warm southern wind that rises from North Africa perfectly describes the welcoming presence of Selaocoe who, as guest director for Manchester Collective for this concert tour, curates a deeply personal programme of music that warms the audience.

Selaocoe opened the concert with a solo performance of Sollima’s 'Lamentatio'. This piece, written in 1998, is a demanding, energetic and haunting piece from the cello repertoire which Selaocoe performed touchingly, singing the unusual vocal line to this piece with meaning. Selaocoe clearly displays an effortless talent in this opening performance while presenting a clearly individual voice and interpretation. While it is obvious that this piece showcases Selaocoe’s fantastic musicianship and sets the tone for the night, there is also a hint of Mediterranean and North African traditions in this composition which are really fitting.

Selaocoe addressed the audience with an ease at various points during the concert. He tells us that in the township where he grew up, artistic creation comes out of nothing. This is a truly striking observation in regards to the music on offer tonight – this provides a clear insight to Selaocoe’s reflections on performance and music. He plays as though he has nothing to lose and makes all his music sound new.

Manchester Collective are welcomed on stage and join Selaocoe for the late renaissance piece for viol Aire in C by William Lawes. A complete change in style is heard with clean lines and resonance projected by the quartet. Artistic director for the collective, Rakhi Singh, lead on first violin, with Simmy Singh on second violin and Ruth Gibson on viola tuned their instruments along with Selaocoe and transformed the disconnected and meaningless sounds into an extended introduction for this Aire. This concept is nothing new – Copland scores the tuning of the orchestra into his ballet Rodeo – but it is unexpected here. It is an example of the detail and consideration with which Selaocoe addresses all of the music for this concert. The programme of music is gently crafted with his own stamp and signature. This is not a branding, or claiming of the music but a genuine connection between performer and composer. It is truly remarkable. At times, Selaocoe brings out the playful rhythmic elements of this music in the cello line. He tells us after this performance that rhythm conquers all.

The following piece of the evening is a traditional African piece. Selaocoe tells us that there is a saying where he comes from that it is better to wake up with the sun in your face than in your back. He says this means if you want to be successful, you have to get up early. He clearly is referring to the work ethic of a musician here – it is easy to presume that music just happens but any musician will tell you that good musicianship takes a lot of time and effort. With that in mind, ‘Wake Up’ is a well-crafted arching piece that incorporates a variety of traditional and progressive elements that flows very naturally, as if indeed it is just happening. Alan Keary, the bassist from Selaocoe’s trio Chesaba, plays a wonderfully resonant and nuanced bass line – keeping and bending rhythm and providing a modal colour that is subtle and dynamically nuanced. His five string bass allows him to be more melodically expressive in his bass lines which adds depth. Sidiki Dembele, the third member of the trio, added African percussion. His two instruments were the djembe with metal rattles and also a large gourd-like bass drum. It is difficult to describe the sound he was able to produce from these two instruments – it was sometimes delicate and shimmery and of course at times bouncing and driving. Dembele is an incredibly talented percussionist in terms of dexterity, speed and sonority – in 'Wake Up' he was able to sympathetically add a colour and rhythm that was exciting.

In this piece, and the other traditional African pieces that were played tonight, there was a strong narrative element with a drama that sometimes reminded me of traditional puppet theatre. Selaocoe added impressive undertones and overtones to his singing and changed range with ease.

Introducing the next piece, Selaocoe described how music was such a big part of his life. After studying cello in the classical style, he noticed his father humming a bass line that seemed to be lifted right out of Haydn. On further questioning, he was humming the part of a hymn that he had been taught from a young age. Selaocoe makes the connection to European missionaries bringing their hymnal singing traditions to South Africa in the colonial age. With that in mind, Manchester Collective joined him in playing the adagio sostenuto from Haydn’s string quartet in G major Op 76, 1. This performance was a masterclass in performance practice for the classical style – Haydn’s playfulness, his depth, his beautiful melodic lines and even his silences were performed as if he were there himself. The call and response between Singh and Selaocoe was a meaningful dialogue that was nuanced with each iteration. Continuing on the point that even in his township, Selaocoe would hear classical harmonies in the music around him, and reinforcing an earlier idea that music performance can last for a long time when he was growing up, the Haydn segued very neatly into a traditional African piece – Ibuyile: Echa Monati. Manchester Collective was joined by Chesaba – Keary continued with delicate, melodic Bass playing that was almost cello like. The Collective added vocal parts, harmonising with Selaocoe’s vocals. Moving from Haydn to Africa was subtle and well thought out. I think Haydn would have been delighted at this – his love for surprises and the unexpected permeates his compositions.

The second half of the evening continued a musical commentary on Selaocoe’s musical life. It included a fantastic performance of Stravinsky’s Concertino in which Selaocoe broke a cello string (apparently not the first time on this tour) and a restart had to take place – this caused some amusement to the RNCM audience, made up quite largely of young people.

More African pieces, displaying an increasingly more complex and virtuosic performance from percussionist Dembele were mixed with some Scandinavian folk songs and an ethereal performance of Purcell’s Largo and Prelude from 'The Fairy Queen', opened by the unearthly talented Rakhi Singh merged into Shaka from the Ivory Coast.

Selaocoe and Manchester Collective are on the ninth leg of a fifteen city tour of Sirocco. Selaocoe talks about the incredible creative journey that is accompanying this tour around the UK and Switzerland, describing the creative environment of the collaboration between Manchester Collective, Selaocoe and Chesaba, Selaocoe says that their music is a reflection of the world around them and of classical music as they want to hear it.

Making music relevant to the world around us is the task of musicians since the start of music. Selaocoe has tapped in to the magic of making every and all music come to life and find meaning and engagement with the audience with fabulous success.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 15/10/19

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