Baroque in our time

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Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-36)

Christmas is nearly upon us and time for the Requiems, the Stabat Maters, to be performed in concert halls and churches up and down the country. Now, more so than ever, audiences, can’t seem to be able to get enough of these religious works. Their familiar musical settings are popular for a reason. Audiences are of course drawn to the sheer gorgeousness of the music. Both lyrical and dramatic, and accessible, even for the first-time concert goer, it is no surprise that Vivaldi, Pergolesi and Handel form an essential part of the choral cannon.

I took myself off to the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening of ‘Sacred Baroque’ featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Vivaldi’s Gloria. Seeing the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment perform together with opera star, Iestyn Davies, was an enthralling prospect . I had recently seen Davies in Handel’s sell out Agrippina at Royal Opera, had been transfixed by his Ottone and his duet with the wonderful Lucy Crowe.

The Stabat Mater is a choral work however, but with noticeable operatic frills. A sober start develops into one of the most dramatic pieces of its kind. It is a medieval hymn about the grief the Virgin Mary felt for her son at his crucifixion. There have been many Stabat Mater musical settings but it is Pergolesi’s composition which most people remember. My first experience of the sublime work was  in sensurround sound in a cinema in Paris. I still remember my teenage mind been blown away by hearing it in Milos Forman’s Amadeus.

At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the OAE musicians walked out from the wings. There is something so aesthetically pleasing about a compact baroque ensemble, the period instruments, the neat harpsichord with tiny keyboard; the violins, violas with their reddish hues, wind instruments. All of this in a beautiful setting. I hadn’t been to the QEH auditorium since its tasteful restoration. Wood panelling everywhere and walls that stretch back in accordion-like fashion from the stage to sharpen the acoustic.

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Queen Elizabeth Hall

A man walked out, clearly not a member of the ensemble. Had Iestyn Davies, ‘the star draw’ bowed out at the last minute? I held my breath. Soprano, Katherine Watson, was nursing a cold, we were told. But she had decided to go ahead and sing the Pergolesi and not Vivaldi’s Gloria, scheduled after the interval. 

The audience’s relief was palpable. Would Watson’s voice hold though? She appeared in a ravishing dress of midnight blue, putting on a brave face. Davies meanwhile, with gelled, sticking out hair, looked positively boyish in his close-fitting suit. With a poppy in his lapel to remind us of Armistice Day, he was all set for Pergolesi’s melancholic piece.

The opening section of Stabat Mater set the sombre mood with each voice taking turns to express sorrow in ever rising and interlocking dissonances. In the duets, Davies, seem to display great emotional intelligence, careful to calibrate his voice with Watson’s soprano. Cold notwithstanding, Watson’s voice is outstanding; lyrical, with a divine quality, and yet she was singing at three-quarter mast. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for her in 2020.

As you would expect, Iestyn, made light of the tricky vocal ornamentation and acrobatics that Pergolesi’s music demands. The counter-tenor’s mastery is awe inspiring, his enunciation superb and all the while he manages to maintain that centred core. Even more fascinating however was to see him connect with the audience, swivelling his body round almost one hundred and eighty degrees, working the whole room. You cannot underestimate the impact of really engaging with your audience these days. It is the secret to building up a solid following which Davies has done and needs to continue to do as he’ll be leaving these shores for a while to sing in the US.

Other highlights were oboe-player extraordinaire, OAE’s Katharina Sprekelsen, showing mastery of her instrument in Albinoni’s Oboe Concerto in D minor.

Soprano, Rowan Pierce meanwhile demonstrated a purity and sweetness of voice in Domine Deus, rex coelestis (O Lord god, heavenly king) in Vivaldi’s Gloria.  Vivaldi’s upbeat, celebratory composition was the perfect antidote to the heart-rending Stabat Mater.

The Choir of the Age of Enlightenment, many of whom are soloists in their own right, showed complete command of their craft and their voices were well-balanced throughout. Together with the OAE orchestra, and under Steven Devine’s direction, the overall effect was a heady combination of professionalism and soul.

I very much look forward to the continuation of Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment’s Salvation and Damnation season in 2020. See here https://oae.co.uk/season/2019-20-season/  Highly recommended.

 

KH

 https://crosseyedpianist.com/2019/11/06/early-music-is-getting-younger/

The Power of Music and Birdsong

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Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge surrounded by fields around 1548

 

Man has always been enraptured by birdsong. The nightingale’s song is not only a thing of rare beauty but a complex affair. Naturalists have likened the nightingale’s musical talents to that of a jazz musician, who is able to improvise on several instruments at once! 

I was therefore horrified to hear recently of the 90 per cent decline in the nightingale population. The statistics for birds are grim overall: 67 species have disappeared in the past 50 years amounting to about 40 million birds.

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Of course we have all noticed how silent our city parks have become. If it wasn’t for the shrieking parakeets which have populated London in the last 15 years, our green spaces would be nearly silent.

With these sad thoughts running through my mind, I attended a bird-inspired musical event, Absolute Bird, held at Southwark Cathedral. It was hosted by our capital’s most forward-looking orchestra, the City of London Sinfonia.  The orchestra, made up of 40 outstanding professional musicians, has always believed in the transformative powers of music in all sectors of our society and this evening was no exception. Their mission tonight was to educate, entertain and inspire us with bird-inspired works and BBC wild-life presenter, Miranda Krestovnikoff, seen on BBC Ones’s The One Show, and President of RSPB, was brought on board to provide us with essential bird facts.

We had all received digital downloads of familiar songbirds on our mobile phones. Krestovnikoff explained that from April, for two months, birds in the breeding season, speak to each other through birdcalls and songs to warn about danger, woo their mates or protect their nests. The bird with the best song, gets his pick of mates and prime nesting sites.

 Asked to choose one bird song out of eleven on offer, I opted for the great tit, going for appearance as well as song. My friends either side of me, pressed ‘house sparrow’ and ‘nightingale’ (the Nation’s favourite).

We got up and were encouraged to take a walk around the Cathedral. Circling the nave, we started to weave in and out of the pillars (whose original design had been modelled on trees), our phones tweeting at full volume. Passing Shakespeare’s memorial, I stopped to admire the exquisite stained-glass window above it, inspired by his plays. I carried on along my way and focussed on the crescendoing dawn chorus we were in effect reproducing. Not since I was a teenager, had I heard the full orchestra of birds!

 

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Shakespeare’s Window in Southwark Cathedral

Back in our seats, we settled down to the musical performance. First off, some early renaissance and baroque music by Daquin, Janequin and Couperin. Le Rossignol en Amour (The Cuckoo in Love) by Couperin, was particularly enchanting, played on flute and theorbo, a large, extended lute. The flute’s trilling mimicked perfectly the cuckoo’s song and showed how the simpler tune gets to the core of the bird’s sound.

Rameau’s Movement from The Hen (La Poule) was a joy, played with humour and gusto by the strings with first violinist, Alexandra Wood at the helm, ensuring precision timing. 

 

Haydn’s Symphony no. 83, also named The Hen followed, this time with full orchestra. The second subject in the first movement artfully evoked the jerky back-and forth head motion of a walking hen.

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More serious in tone was Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Major, The Cuckoo and also the First movement of Spring, from The Four Seasons. The divine sound of soaring strings filled the airy Cathedral which had been so beautifully lit for the occasion, the stone of the upper galleries glowing in a warm yellow light.

At the end of this inspiring programme I walked over to a sound sculpture on a raised stage in the middle nave. On three branches perched three plump birds, carved of wood. A black box emitted tiny flickering lights beneath it.

Gawain Hewitt, proud author of this interactive, sonic piece has worked with young people of Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital School on The Absolute Bird project, getting their musical input, recording it and coding it. The benefits of music on mental health is a growing field and City of London Sinfonia seem to be at the forefront of this very exciting initiative.

I picked up two birds and moved them to another branch. As I did so different ethereal sounds and snatches of birdsong came through the black music box. In all, there were 33 variations of a dawn chorus.

Not surprisingly the project has been a huge success with children who have suffered great trauma and brain injuries.

I left the concert feeling warmed and moved by what I had heard and the next morning found myself rushing into my garden to record a song thrush singing in my neighbour’s tree.

KH

To find out more about City of London Sinfonia orchestra: https://cityoflondonsinfonia.co.uk

And https://cityoflondonsinfonia.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/the-influence-of-absolute-bird/

RSPB (Royal Society of Protection of Birds) : https://www.rspb.org.uk

Southwark Cathedral has perfect acoustics. What’s on : https://cathedral.southwark.anglican.org/whats-on/