The choice of artists-in-residence for the 2022-23 season at London’s Southbank Centre was made with the clear intention of pushing the boundaries. At the weekend, two of them came one right after another in a reminder of the range that has been on offer.
Over the winter, cellist Abel Selaocoe has been presenting concerts exploring where his native South African culture meets the classical music tradition. An enthusiastic band of supporters gathered in the Royal Festival Hall for this last event of his residency in the company of the majority black and ethnically diverse Chineke! Orchestra.
All the music had an African connection of some kind. The mixed-race British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has been a regular name on Chineke! programmes and two of his Four Novelletten for string orchestra (1903) were another good find. Fela Sowande’s similarly attractive African Suite (1944) took African themes and presented them in a thoroughly westernised style.
Beyond those lay the works composed by Selaocoe himself and kora-player Seckou Keita, which drilled down more deeply into their African roots. These were the main event and prime among them was the jointly composed Concerto for cello and kora, a Southbank Centre co-commission getting its first London performance. Selaocoe talked of a journey through the many rhythms of Africa, but the real spark was lit in the music’s spontaneity as he and Keita improvised, sang singly and together, and drew the audience into rhythmic clapping. The sun shone in this concerto thanks to the African tradition of music as a communal experience.
In the past Selacoe has toured with the Manchester Collective, but the guest on the group’s current tour is multiskilled guitarist Sean Shibe. The audience at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was promised a programme of gentle music, “foreplay before the final of Eurovision” later that evening. With atmospheric lighting and a mist hanging over the platform, two new works from the Manchester Collective’s commissioning programme formed the backbone of the concert.
The outstanding item was Living Again by American composer Kelly Moran, a 10-minute triptych for string quartet and guitar, which left a bigger impression than its short timespan might have led one to expect. A rich cello threnody interacts with the guitar. A high-lying second violin line hovers in the air like an angel. Although the mood is warm and contemplative, this is music that touches the heart deeply and we hardly need to be told that Moran was reflecting on the early death of her first love, a cellist in her school orchestra.
Among the other works, David Fennessy’s Rosewoods interwove decorative guitar filigree and string murmurings inspired by the Italian Chapel decorated by prisoners-of-war in Orkney, palpably evoking the flickering of shadows or ominous ghosts of the past. Emily Hall’s Our Potential Space, the other commission, is similarly subtle in its use of electric guitar and amplified string quartet as it moves through “the space between reality and fantasy”.
After so much music of finely-judged ambiguities, the Eurovision final will have come as quite a shock.
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