Rothko Chapel was SANSARA and Manchester Collective’s utterly remarkable, unforgettable concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, Rothko Chapel: SANSARA, Manchester Collective. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 5.5.2024 (CC)

Rakhi Singh (music director of Manchester Collective) © Pete Woodhead

Arvo Pärt – Solfeggio for chorus
Scelsi – Latin Prayers: Ave Maria
Isobel Waller-Bridge – Rothko No.9 for chorus, string quartet & percussion (world premiere)
Katherine Balch – songs and interludes for chamber choir & percussion (world premiere)
Saariaho – Papillons No.2 (Leggiero, molto espressivo) from Sept Papillons for cello
Missy Mazzoli – Vespers for Violin
Edmund Finnis – Blue divided by blue for chorus, string quartet & tubular bells (world premiere)
Feldman – Rothko Chapel for chorus, viola, celeste & percussion

Manchester Collective retains its power to move on the deepest level after the departure in January 2024 of its co-founder, Adam Szabo to take over as Director of the BBC Philharmonic. Violinist Rakhi Singh remains as Music Director, and the keen, imaginative programming remains completely in place.

Seeing the name Morton Feldman at the Southbank is balm for the soul. The concert led up to his magnificent Rothko Chapel, the achievement being that all of the previous works had a part to play in that journey; none were diminished in Feldman’s mighty company.

Manchester Collective is expert at creating profoundly meditative spaces. Their concerts are always an immersive experience – to the extent that the group prefers performing in the round, surrounded by its audience. No such luck at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but the low lighting with characteristic spot lamps is both individual and effective: lighting, by Lewis Howell, was superbly considered throughout. Commissioning lies at the heart of the Collective’s work, and there were no fewer than three world premieres at this concert, including one from regular Collective collaborator Edmund Finnis.

Manchester Collective and SANSARA’s Rothko Chapel at Queen Elizabeth Hall © Pete Woodhead

This is Manchester Collective’s first collaboration with the choral group SANSARA, who describe themselves as a ‘vocal collective’ (a rather nice mirroring). The result was perfect, both groups conspiring to create what was the overall aim of the programme: ‘A stillness that moves. A quiet disruption. A sanctuary for the seeker,’ as the notes (accessed via QR code) tell us. The world premieres are responses to Feldman’s work (itself a response to Rothko). Contemplation is key to the concert, a reflection perhaps of Rothko’s ‘relentless confrontation with reality’ (Feldman’s words).

Timelessness is certainly at the heart of the opening of Arvo Pärt’s Solfeggio (1963) is based on a simple C major scale but used as a tone row. The only ‘words’ one hears are the note names (as Rakhi Singh pointed out in one of her links, like in The Sound of Music). The piece demands extreme control from its choir, right from the first soprano entrance – perfectly placed here. Pitching from SANSARA is (pardon the pun) simply off the scale. The tuning is all-important in this piece for the harmonies to make full effect – the music unfolds blissfully slowly, and SANSARA provided one of the finest performances I have heard, live or on disc.

A solo cello sat to the side of the choir: Collective regular Nick Trygstad. Giacinto Scelsi’s Three Latin Prayers of 1972 was originally conceived as ‘solo voice or women’s unison choir or men’s unison choir’; The other two are ‘Pater Noster’ and ‘Alleluja’. One can certainly hear the plainsong aspect of the piece; Trygstad’s performance was masterly, timeless in its ruminations. While recordings exist for clarinet, solo cello seemed, certainly in this intimate setting, most apposite.

And so to the first of the world premieres, Isobel Waller-Bridge’s No.9 for choir, string quartet, celeste (centrally placed) and percussion. The title refers to Rothko’s White and Black on Wine, painted in 1958. Walter-Bridge refers to the ‘bold heavy colour of the painting’ and states that when she saw the painting, after standing in front of it for a long time, ‘sound emanated from it’. The scoring of Waller-Bridge’s piece reflects in sound the heaviness of Rothko’s painting, ominous, oppressive, almost the track to a horror movie. Memorable indeed.

Moving on now to Katherine Balch, her new piece was songs and interludes for choir, soprano and alto), harmonica, celeste and percussion. This is a response to Rothko Chapel, including Feldman’s piece but not limited to it, although she takes Feldman’s structure – songs and interludes – as a frame. But it is Rothko’s earlier, more colourful paintings, that more properly match Balch’s expressive world, so she turned to them for the core listening experience: the so-called ‘colour-field’ works like Yellow and Blue or No.7 (Green and Maroon). She also is fascinated by ‘blacked-out’ poetry and applied this idea for Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – so for a whole page of writing, only a word or two might be visible. The use of harmonica (played by members of the choir) is most effective, while the high voices give an otherworldly effect, almost unreal.

I had actually come across one of Balch’s pieces before: her Cleaning for solo violin, which focuses on wiping down the violin strings, while the violinist is instructed to perform in gloves, as a nod to the ‘New Hygiene’ Covid brought with it. Here is a composer of great imagination.

Good to have some music by the much-missed Kaija Saariaho, the second of Sept Papillons. The first of the set is possibly a musical birth, all high trills and oscillations; the second, heard in a fine performance by Trygstad on this occasion, is, then, first flight. It can’t be easy, not with all those string-crossings, but Trygstad made it sound completely light, a Modernist cousin from the year 2000 to a Bach Cello Suite.

So to the final pair. A piece for solo violin and electronics first, Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin (a reimagining of an earlier piece, Vespers for a New Dark Age – a reimagining of a church service for today’s world). The material was massively reworked for the violin version while retaining a feeling of the ancient transplanted into the modern. So it is that Singh’s beautiful violin line emerged from almost inaudible electronic sounds. The violinist’s sound takes on a life of its own thanks to that modern electronic magic, as if the act of playing frees the music beyond the performer herself. Hugh Morris’s excellent programme note refers to this as ‘altogether dirtier’ than the Feldman, ‘like dredging up a precious artefact from the bottom of a muddy pool’. There are voices in the air, too, distanced, like a choir from another epoch.

Another composer associated with Manchester Collective is Edmund Finnis. Here, we had Blue Divided by Blue for choir, string quartet and tubular bells. Only ten minutes, it remains a powerful lament, ‘written in memory of absent friends’. It begins with a viola solo, linking itself immediately to the voila of Feldman’s piece, Finnis’s viola melds into the string quartet, but only after extensive soliloquising from the excellent Ruth Gibson. The choir’s text comes from words extracted from the titles of Rothko’s paintings. As always, Finnis gives pause for thought within his own distinctive soundworld; here, one sat in wonder at his expertise marshalling his chosen forces, too.

Finally, Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, half an hour of pure bliss. His is not quite as static as some Feldman, and it is certainly much shorter than some pieces. Still deliciously haunting, though, and demanding exactly the same from its performers as those longer pieces: complete concentration on the moment and an awareness of the relationship of music and silence. Sometimes it feels as if the silence between sounds is the music itself – no wonder Feldman and Cage were so close.

Originally written to be performed in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas (wherein lie some of that painter’s most disturbing works, though he never saw the chapel because of his own suicide). Feldman’s reaction carries a weight in the viola’s contribution – finally realised into a poignant melody. One can detect structure, of course: a declamatory opening; leading to a more uniform, ‘abstract’ section for choir and bells followed by a more motive-led intermezzo for soprano, viola and timpani, and finally a lyrical conclusion for viola with vibraphone. The performance at the QEH was miraculous, the choir’s contributions helping to create a trans-like state. Some of the choir’s solo lines were remarkable, particularly in the soprano register: they contained just the purity of slur from note to note that Feldman surely requires.

An utterly remarkable, unforgettable concert. In SANSARA, Manchester Collective has surely found an aesthetic twin. Manchester Collective and SANSARA go on to perform Rothko Chapel at Leverkusen (May 7), Antwerp (May 8) and back in Manchester, at the Bridgewater Hall, on May 10.

Colin Clarke

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