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The week in classical: Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience; Manchester Collective

“His Messiah has disappointed me… I shall put no more Sacred Words into his hands, to be thus abused.” So wrote Handel’s waspish librettist Charles Jennens in 1743, clearly – and bafflingly – unimpressed by the composer’s masterpiece, a work that stands today at the pinnacle of the repertoire. If the original gave Jennens the vapours, one shudders to think what he would have suffered after seeing the costumes, dancing and light show that “enhanced” its latest incarnation at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Apoplexy, probably.

Classical Everywhere is a company that aims to change the way that music is presented, and it doesn’t mince its words. Its artistic director and conductor, Gregory Batsleer, goes for the jugular in his programme note: “Classical music is regarded as dull and stuffy. It is not a form of entertainment that most people can relate to.” Really? He plainly hasn’t been in an opera house recently. He has no doubt that composers “would approve of finding exciting new approaches to performing their music, especially in ways designed to augment and enhance the spirit and narrative”. That’s fine, but this Messiah had exactly the opposite effect, muddying its message, cluttering its presentation and crippling the flow of the narrative.

Handel was the supreme dramatist. He knew how to balance pathos with bold exclamations of hope and redemption. To break that flow with lengthy, pretentious poetry (and to cut fine music to make room for it) did little for our comprehension. Showing vapid, whirling screensaver images on a backdrop does not enhance the drama inherent in every note of this score. And while some of Tom Jackson Greaves’s choreography was undoubtedly graceful, it often got in the way on a stage already crammed to the rafters with the English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, soloists and actors (when the moment came for The Trumpet Shall Sound, it was so far away in the wings it could hardly be heard).

Thank goodness for soloists Danielle de Niese, Idunnu Münch, Nicky Spence and Cody Quattlebaum, who brought some quality singing to the evening, even if De Niese seemed ill-at-ease, perhaps something to do with having to climb into a series of increasingly bizarre costumes between each aria.

Enough. Let’s talk about Manchester Collective, a flexible contemporary music ensemble that genuinely aims to reshape the future of classical music. It says it believes “in risks, in mistakes, in danger and jeopardy in live performance”. Arts Council England applauds this and has added it to its list of funded organisations this year – a piece of good news drowned out by the continuing protests over its recent politically motivated cuts.

Like Classical Everywhere, this ensemble is not above using a bit of coloured lighting and dry ice to add some atmosphere, but then it has something truly authentic to present: never less than interesting new music. Last week, three works written for string orchestra in the past 10 years by Americans Missy Mazzoli (b.1980) and Caroline Shaw (b.1982) joined a world premiere by British composer Oliver Leith (b.1990).

Barefoot violinist Rakhi Singh is the ensemble’s dynamic director, leading 17 players with authority and skill, not least in Mazzoli’s You Know Me from Here. A heavily accented two-note motif drives this exhilarating piece, taking us through strife and loneliness towards a place of calm serenity, denoted by an extended, lyrical cello solo. Shaw’s Plan & Elevation is both a sound picture of the exterior of Dumbarton Oaks, the US country house haven for composers, and a hazy blueprint for the plans we make for our own lives: plans that inevitably alter as we grow. Grounded in tonality, it uses chords, bowed or plucked, grouped or spread, to put in place a brilliantly imposing, instantly appealing architectural edifice.

Less impressive was Leith’s will o wisp, a piece designed to reflect the insubstantial nature of folklore’s phantom light that also serves as a metaphor for a goal that’s impossible to reach. It makes several attempts at setting out but quickly gets nowhere: glissandi slide into silence; trills and harmonics disappear; a rustic jig can barely assert itself. The collective likes to take risks, and this was surely one of them.

There were few risks – but plenty of danger – in Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony in C minor, Rudolf Barshai’s string orchestra transcription of the searing String Quartet No 8, the players bringing a thrilling savagery to the fierce interjections that interrupt this extended lament. This was playing of the highest quality, perhaps reflecting the confidence that even a small amount of recognition (just £120,000 a year) can bring to an ensemble with the vision and skill to truly see into the future.

Star ratings (out of five)
Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience ★★
Manchester Collective
★★★★