COLAB 2023 at Laban, ORNC, St Alfege’s, Blackheath Halls & Queen’s House
Updated: Feb 28
Over the course of a fortnight, Trinity Laban students created and publicly performed programmes inspired by a breathtaking range of genres dating back to biblical times and including, among much else, four centuries of European classicism, the musical traditions of Ukraine, Catalonia, India, China, Nigeria and Judaism, modern opera, jazz, gospel, metal, hiphop and soul.
As if that wasn’t enough, they also found time to give us some contemporary dance, poetry, politics, art, film and even a blast of clowning. Phew!
Yet only days earlier, the hundreds of youngsters taking part in the fabulous annual CoLab festival had known little more than that this year’s theme was A Better Place. They then had a few intensive mentored sessions to decide how to interpret it, realise their vision and learn to present it in front of an audience. It must have been a daunting prospect.
But it was also clearly an exhilarating one because the final performances I watched – and I saw almost all of them – presented a sort of cultural kaleidoscope that was technically, artistically and emotionally faultless. So much so, in fact, that at times it felt miraculous.
The public side of CoLab kicked off at St Alfege’s with a contrasting double bill - You Can’t Kill The Spirit, a beautiful hymn to the heroism of the women of Greenham Common, and a joyful tribute to jazz bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding.
A couple of days later, the Old Royal Naval College chapel hosted Visions Of Utopia with pianists and singers performing works by Mahler, Scriabin and Shostakovich, in the process cleverly uncovering just how close utopia and dystopia coexist.
Week One ended with a glorious mélange of dance, film, performance art and music – including a brilliant jazz improvisation – throughout the Laban building. There truly was something to satisfy every artistic taste.
The following week St Alfege’s was packed again as students and the marvellous Waldstein Piano Trio presented Variations For The End Of Time, a stunning jazz jam (above) inspired by a Messiaen quartet written when he was a prisoner of the Nazis in 1941. I especially loved the mesmerising second movement which featured a bird-whistling vocal, fluttering drum brushwork and a great trombone solo. The recital was completed by a gloriously uplifting programme from a 27-strong gospel choir.
CoLab’s final Friday opened with an epic daytime concert in the Old Royal Naval College chapel called Cultural Connections which featured string players and singers performing a gorgeous range of Ukrainian, Catalan, Indian, French, Jewish, Chinese, Yorùbá, British and Russian music and poetry.
At teatime the same day, the Hearn Recital Room at Blackheath Halls hosted A Step In The Dark, an exceptionally powerful and moving riff on Douglas Finch’s dementia-themed opera Take Care. It was followed by a SolarPunk Opera eco-fable led by clown-singer Eleanor Westbrook which was simultaneously funny and sad - and beautifully sung.
Downstairs in the Great Hall the CoLab closing night party got underway with Stories From The Inside, a collaboration with the pioneering Irene Taylor Trust in which ex-cons, backed by a TL band, rapped about their prison experiences. Later, Queer Canon used music from Lully to minimalist Julius Eastman to look at the effect of queer identity on legacy and a phenomenal Afrobeat set (top) got the crowd jumping in preparation for a sort of disco party that featured live soul and metal bands and had everyone dancing into the night.
Normally that would mark the end of CoLab but this year there was one last special event – a Queen’s House concert featuring electric violist and TL professor Nic Pendlebury (above).
He played his own memorable transcription of Terry Riley’s Sunrise Of The Planetary Dream Collector before joining a 15-piece chamber ensemble who had worked with composer Eliana Echeverry to create a stunning new piece, The Lost Planet, which imagined the sounds and atmosphere of Pluto. Pendlebury then conducted the orchestra in a rousing arrangement of Holst’s Planets suite that brought the festival to an end on a truly cosmic high.
In a world overshadowed by the climate emergency and the ever-present threat of war, we all need as much hope as we can get. In its own small but hugely significant way, CoLab showed that A Better Place is always within reach.