Collective encounter

A classical music ensemble in Manchester is defying traditions and expectations as it blurs the boundaries between experimental music, art, theatre, film, literature, photography and dance

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Since forming in 2016, Manchester Collective has received many glowing reviews for its boundary-pushing live shows and proudly features a selection of quotes from critics and audience members on its website. Included among them is an endorsement from someone called GingerLoveGod, who perhaps best evokes what makes the classical music ensemble stand out. “The craziest, most mental, intense, dark and passionate piece of art I’ve ever witnessed,” raves the auburn deity. “Maddest night sober I’ve ever spent.”

For Manchester Collective chief executive Adam Szabo, defying audience expectations is the highest form of praise. “People think of certain things when they think of a string quartet or string players,” he explains over Zoom. “We want to explode this idea of what that combination of instruments can do in all sorts of different and beautiful directions.”

A trained cellist, Szabo co-founded Manchester Collective alongside violinist and composer Rakhi Singh five years ago after they both got frustrated playing a limited repertoire of material in traditional chamber orchestras.

“We both had principal orchestral jobs, but we realised there was something missing and there was potential for a lot more,” says Singh, the group’s musical director. “We wanted to play to different people and not just see the same people in the audience all the time. And we wanted to choose what we were going to play, which rarely happens in the classical world.”

Manchester Collective’s Rakhi Singh and Adam Szabo. Photos: Vic Frankowski/Robin Clewley

The ensemble’s first performances took place in early 2017 and featured recitals of work by Henry Purcell, John Cage and Arnold Schoenberg. Around 100 live shows have followed, spread over six seasons, encompassing everything from Bach and Brahms to cutting-edge classical and electronic music, as well as new works from contemporary composers. Other collaborative projects have blurred the edges between experimental music, art, theatre, film, literature, photography and dance, giving a platform to creators from across the north.

In line with the collective’s experimental programming, concerts take place in venues ranging from traditional concert halls like Hallé St Peter’s in Manchester to buildings that more often play host to rock or club nights, such as the White Hotel in Salford and Future Yard in Birkenhead. Last year, the ensemble performed their biggest show to date when they made their debut at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and released their first album, The Centre is Everywhere.

“Often stuff goes down in a very different way in an alternative venue than it does in a concert hall,” says Szabo. “People definitely dismiss classical music but also, to its great shame, classical music has dismissed a lot of audiences over the many years that it’s been around. We’re trying to push back against this idea that you’ve got to come from a certain place or have a certain education to enjoy this music.”

That ethos is at the heart of the group’s current season, which features seven productions touring multiple cities and continues next month with A Little Requiem, featuring music by composers Ferruccio Busoni and Henryk Górecki.

Other shows scheduled for the spring and early summer include The Oracle, a collaboration with South African cellist Abel Selaocoe, and new commissions by Hannah Peel and Berlin-based Lyra Pramuk.

“I want people in Bonn or Vienna to go: ‘Oh, Manchester, that’s the place where music is happening again,’” enthuses Szabo. “There’s so much incredible work happening here. It just needs to be put out there.”

Manchester Collective’s 2021/22 season continues with A Little Requiem (11 & 12 February), The Oracle (31 March–
24 April), Neon (14–22 May) and This Savage Parade (16–24 June) (manchestercollective.co.uk)

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