Posts Tagged ‘The Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment’

String Theory

In Classical Music, Review on November 27, 2014 at 10:23 am

Review – The Works (Queen Elizabeth Hall, Monday 24 November 2014)

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment seems to have cornered the market in ways to bring music to audiences in fresh and innovative ways. And while The Works and Night Shift aim to bring new audiences to classical music, personally I enjoy attending these concerts because they always shed new light on music that I’ve known and loved for years and – almost always – begun to take for granted.

And the evening dedicated to Dvorak and Elgar was no different. I grew up loving both Dvorak’s Serenade and the latter’s Sospiri but after Monday’s concert I returned to them with fresh ears.

Naturally and as ever, the OAE themselves played with both skill and enthusiasm, drawing out both robust depth and sound as well as a range of colours. When they stood to perform, it really lifted both their playing as well as bringing a brighter, keener sound to the music.

And host-cum-presenter Rachel Leach did a brilliant job in sharing her enthusiasm and passion for both these pieces and classical music overall. Her no -nonsense and non-technical approach was so refreshing and invigorating despite the sad, old naysayer in the audience. I love the fact that she taught the audience a new term – hemiola – and that she did so by getting them to perfom it themselves. And forever more I shall not refer to ‘ternary form’ when speaking to friends not as conversant as I in musical form, but rather sandwiches. If there were more people like Rachel Leach – her love of music is infectious – then I’ve no doubt that there would be more people willing to at least try classical music.

Has the OAE considered podcasts featuring Rachel? And perhaps the BBC should enlist her skills.

By bringing out the detail of the Serenade, and placing it in the context of the form’s provenance as well as Dvorak’s life, she literally reinvented it for me. And similarly with Sospiri. I’d never truly realized it’s significance of being composed in 1914, and with the Centenary this year there was an added poignancy.

I have to admit I wasn’t so moved by the arrangement of Grieg’s Erotik for piano. While the arrangement was a smart one, for me it didn’t add anything to the original piece and in some ways detracted from it’s original emotional impact.

However the most startling performance of the evening was the performance of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. There was a simple yet ethereal and translucent beauty to the performance with each individual line – and not only the harp – balanced and audible.

It was simply breathtaking.

Long may the OAE continue this series – and Night Shifts. While they may be brining a new audience to the music, they shouldn’t discount that they are teaching some old dogs new tricks when listening to cherished favourites.

“Cross-Over” Pergolesi

In Baroque, Classical Music, Review on March 28, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Review – Stabat Mater (OAE The Works, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tuesday 26 March 2013)

Elin Manahan Thomas (Soprano)
William Purefoy (Countertenor)
Hannah Conway (Host)
Steven Devine (Director/Conductor)

A great concert is made up great musicians and singers, a perfect, or as near as perfect performance, that vital ingredient – enthusiasm – and for me personally, learning something new, often about a piece of music I thought I knew well.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new series The Works and the most recent concert featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater was that perfect combination.

Without a doubt Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is one of the finest pieces of church music. I first heard it – and sang it – as a choirboy in an organ loft and its sheer beauty has remained with me forever. It’s one of those pieces that I play when I am feeling like I need to turn the world off. And it always works.

Of course it is too easy to become wrapped up in the romanticism of his tragically short life and the fact that this piece was written in his final year.

Or you can take the OAE’s approach and cast a refreshing new light on this work.

Hosted, as it were, by Hannah Conway whose own enthusiasm was infectious, conductor Steven Devine not only simply but also clearly described the various devices and Baroque ‘affections’ that Pergolesi employed to such great effect. And he mentioned something that had simply not occurred to me in relation to Pergolesi before.

Pergolesi used operatic idioms in his Stabat Mater.

Now of course many of you may have already realized this. It wasn’t uncommon for composers from the baroque period onwards to ‘mix it up’. You hear it in Handel, Hasse, Mozart, Haydn and even JS Bach.

And yet it had never occurred to me that Pergolesi – who made his reputation mainly on the operatic stage – had done the same thing.

Pergolesi was as “cross-over” a composer as many of his contemporaries and those who followed them.

And this simple realization meant that I listened to the subsequent performance almost as it if was the first time.

And it was an excellent performance.

Both Elin Manahan Thomas and William Purefoy – himself somewhat of a joker who enlivened the proceedings even more with his observation about hormones and their effects on men and pregnant women – beautifully and sympathetically melded their voices in their duets and as soloists spun the vocal lines with both authority and sensitivity. Purefoy might not have the strongest lower register but the beauty of his tone and the way he coloured his voice was mesmerizing. And Manahan Thomas’s crystal clear and bright soprano was the perfect foil.

There is sometimes a tendency – perhaps to do with the romanticism more often associated with the piece – for tempos to be on the slower side but here Devine measured the pace and tempo of every movement brilliantly. Rhythms were sharp, phrasing was elegant and the music scoured for every effect which were intelligently done without being overplayed.

And in the same manner, in those movements with their newly revealed operatic bent, the singers didn’t shy away from emphasizing the more dramatic or lyrical aspects.

Each and every movement was beautifully performed but personally the standout moments were the sublime duets Quis est homo, qui non fleret and Quando corpus morietur as well as the dramatic brevity of the final Amen.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has created something really special with initiatives such as The Works and Night Shift. Of course they are mainly aimed at attracting new audiences but just as importantly I think they shed new light on music for those who think that they know them.

Whenever I now listen the Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater the sacred will forever be tinged with more than a little humanity.

And for me that makes it just that little bit more special.

The next concert is on November 7 and features Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony.

Definitely one to book. And take a friend.

Bell-a Emma

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on March 11, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Review – Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers – Curtain Raisers & High Drama. (Emma Bell, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Marin Alsop. Queen Elizabeth Hall, Friday 8 March 2013).

The Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers season by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is turning out to be a cracking series. If this particularly concert didn’t have the fizz and sizzle of the preceding concerts I think it had more to do with the programming than the music making.

I will never understand why we don’t see more of Emma Bell in the UK. I have her CDs of Handel and lieder by Strauss et al and they are both magnificent. I have seen her at ENO as Vitellia in McVicar’s Clemenza di Tito; Violetta in Connal Morrison’s La Traviata and in Katie Mitchell’s bland Idomeneo saved somewhat by her magnificent Elettra.

As the soloist in this concert Ms Bell was on excellent form. While at time her diction wasn’t complete crystal clear, vocally she was on brilliant form. Her voice is strong and even throughout and she has a pleasant – pardon the unintentional pun – bell-like bloom at the top of her register. And she handled the tessitura of the arias selected with confidence while at the same time displaying excellent dynamic and dramatic intelligence.

Her opening performance of the aria, O smania! O furie! O disperata Elettra! captured both the disintegration of Elettra and the dramatic substance of the music that the twenty-five year old Mozart wrote. Following a gripping rendition of the accompanied recitative Ms Bell effortlessly swung from the more declamatory sections to the most sweeping phrases and cleanly managed the sometimes tricky closing chromatic phrases.

A change from frock to trouser suit and Emma Bell returned to sing Beethoven’s Abscheulicher, wo eislt du hin … Komm, Hoffnung. This is a wonderful scena and in complete contrast to her Elettra, her Leonore was one of both tenderness and resolve. I noticed that she is due to sing the role at ENO and her performance at the Southbank Centre bodes well indeed.

Her final appearance was in in Ocean! Thou mighty Monster from Weber’s Oberon. I admit that this piece always reminds me of Victorian music hall music. Harsh I admit but I can’t get away from that impression. Possibly it has something to do with the fact I struggle with Weber’s music and a dreadful experience while studying Der Freischutz when I was in school. Emma Bell performed it convincingly – well sung and suitably wide-eyed dramatically – but it still failed to convince me to revisit either that particular opera or Weber in general.

The remainder of the concert was made up of the overture from Idomeneo, Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 and Schumann’s Symphony No.2 in C.

Marin Alsop is also someone we regrettably see very little of in the UK. And again it is something that needs to be remedied. She is a conductor of passion and warmth as well as great intelligence and intuition. And she has the rare ability of being able to talk to the audience and communicate her own enthusiasm and passion for music making.

In the first half I would have personally liked a slightly faster tempo and a bit more bite and moodiness in the overture to Idomeneo but by the time of Leonore No. 3 both Marin Alsop and the Orchestra had got into the groove of the music and delivered a crisp and rhythmically alert performance full of the orchestral colour that Beethoven wrote into the music. Often the menace of the opening bass line is glossed over in performance but not so here.

Before the Schumann, Alsop took to the microphone briefly to give some explanation to the piece. Clearly it is a symphony that is close to her heart judging not only from her conducting without a score but also from the eloquence with which she spoke and the intensity of the performance that she evoked from the players. And indeed the highlight of the entire symphony was the elegiac and lied-like third movement. The orchestra belied claims that period instrument orchestras cannot play with warmth and depth, producing a wonderful sound that did real justice to this movement. The scherzo was suitably light on its feet and the two outer movements were invested with a sense of weight without ever sacrificing the transparency required to do this symphony real justice.

Indeed throughout, whether it was accompanying Emma Bell, or relishing their own orchestral contributions, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played with their characteristic verve and spirit.

As I have said, this series has shaped up beautifully and while this particular concert didn’t quite raise the temperature as the preceding concerts or the promise of the future instalment, it was more a case of the programming that the performances.

Yet again the OAE excelled in their musicianship and note for note, temperament for temperament they were matched by Emma Bell and Maestro Alsop.

Joie de Jouer.

In Baroque, Classical Music, Opera, Review on October 3, 2012 at 9:51 am

Review: Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: Three eras of divas (Royal Festival Hall, Sunday 30 September 2012)

Anna Caterina Antonacci (Soprano)
The Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment
Sir Roger Norrington (Conductor Emeritus)

Haydn – Symphony No. 85
Cherubini – Dei tuoi figli la made (Medea)
Gluck – Dance of the Blessed Spirits & Dance of the Furies
Gluck – O malhereuse Iphigénie (Iphigénie en Tauride)
Berlioz – Je vais mourir … Adieu, fière cité
Bizet – Symphony in C

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is – personally – one of the few orchestras that actively exude a real pleasure in their music making. And say what you will about Norrington’s conducting mannerisms, his enthusiasm – something I personally experienced when he conducted my school orchestra and choir when I was young – added to the almost festival atmosphere at the Southbank at the weekend.

The weekend’s concert was the opening in a quartet of concerts that will see performances by the Sarah Connolly and Emma Bell and a tribute concert to Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson. This opening concert’s soloist was Anna Caterina Antonacci who – following her performance as Cassandre in Covent Garden’s Les Troyens seems to be the toast of the opera loving crowd at the moment. At least in the UK.

The concert opened in fine style and set the standard for the rest of the evening in terms of the standard of music making with Haydn’s ‘La Reine’ symphony. It was clear from the start that the players and Norrington have a deep-rooted connection – a camaraderie almost – that delivers such a high standard of playing. Immediately Norrington established a real sense of momentum with crisp rhythms, careful attention paid to dynamics and equal attention given to leveraging a real range of orchestral colour which was particular evident in the elegant theme and variations which made up the second movement.

I admit I am not a fan of the two dances from Orfeo ed Euridice. I admit they are well crafted but they leave me cold. Despite the wonderfully nuanced playing in Blessed Spirits and the vigorous string playing in The Furies they still remained simply filler for me. It was a shame that something a little more adventurous wasn’t programmed.

Similarly the closing Symphony in C by Bizet veritably fizzed along with similar rhythmic and dynamic acuity. Usually I can never quite hear this symphony either without thinking it light weight or without Beecham’s performance in the back of my mind but that wasn’t the case at the Royal Festival Hall. From the opening bars the Norrington and the orchestra revelled in Bizet’s score and demonstrated that this symphony – of which Bizet himself was almost ashamed – was less a pastiche or confection of styles but a symphony worthy of being heard in its own right. It was a fitting end to a excellent evening.

The rest of the concert featured Signora Antonacci in excerpts from French opera. As I have already mentioned, Ms Antonacci seems to be the toast of the town at the moment after Les Troyens.

And rightly so judging from her performance on Sunday night. As many have noted, she does not have a voice that will appeal to everyone. Indeed the programme referred to her ‘extraordinary vocal timbre’ but like singers such as Edda Moser her technique is sure and confident. Her voice may strain at the upper end of her register and acquire an uncomfortable tone but her dynamic control was incredible and throughout her diction was clear

Her performance of short extracts from Cherubini’s Medea, Berlioz’ Les Troyens and – sadly – a paltry extract from Iphigénie en Tauride demonstrated that what she may lack in vocal beauty is more than compensated for by how she invests her singing with real dramatic intensity, emotional intelligence and stage presence. I am not a fan of Les Troyens but now I am determined to catch one of the cinema broadcasts of ROH’s production to see her performance for myself.

Yet strangely it was her encore – Les Tringles des Sistres tintaient from Carmen – that brought the house down. Unlike earlier, not only was there no sense of vocal strain but she produced a warm, almost velvety tone that was absent before.

On an aside, at the interval I did hear a few people comment negatively on the OAE’s new marketing campaign. ‘Not All Audiences Are The Same’ is a clever twist on the Orchestra’s original strap line and continues in the same humour of their early campaigns. Its a shame that there were more than a few empty seats on Sunday night. But bravo OAE for once again taking a different route to attract new audiences. Some bigger institutions should take note. And while I’m at it, nice website too.

As ever, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment delivered a concert of the highest standard of music. They always find a way to invest evening the more commonly heard pieces with invention and insight. It seems that they didn’t record the evening for their own label which is a pity but I do look forward to the three remaining concerts in this set.


Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.

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