sun 13/06/2021

The Night Shift, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, QEH | reviews, news & interviews

The Night Shift, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, QEH

The Night Shift, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, QEH

Period orchestra successfully pursues youth vote

Go on, admit it. You’ve done it too. Someone is talking in your vicinity and you’ve turned round to give them evils. It’s a manoeuvre I’ve been perfecting for years. The classic rebuke is in the speedy twist of the neck, a withering glance in the perpetrator’s general direction (but not, crucially, into their eyeballs: too confrontational) followed by the slow, affronted turn back to face the front. For one night only, the gesture says, you are singlehandedly ruining my life. I didn't pay more than I can afford to listen to you whisper through Beethoven/Shakespeare/”The Great Gig in the Sky” (yes, they can strike anywhere, any time).

The Night Shift is a much needed counterblast to the likes of me. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been doing its occasional short late-night concerts after the main evening programme for a couple of years now. As classical music played peerlessly on period instruments fills the Queen Elizabeth Hall, audiences are actively encouraged to aim two lofted fingers at the snots who tut and shudder when people applaud between movements. Unpurse those lips, the Night Shift says. Slacken that private bit of you that needs slackening. And chill.

NightShiftorchestraThe academic argument underpinning the Night Shift is that the precedent for audience hush was set in the 19th century, long after a lot of the music that the orchestra plays was composed. This bicentenary year has been devoted to Haydn, for example, who was no doubt not in a position to insist that the employer he routinely addressed in letters as “Serene Highness and Noble Prince of the Holy Roman Empire Gracious and Dread Lord” pipe down at the back. Nor could anyone else in the audience at Esterháza. Period instruments: period atmosphere. That’s the Enlightenment thinking.

In pursuit of this experiment in atmospherics, a key ingredient is the cheaper ticket. It costs a tenner to get in, eight quid if you book in advance; a few tickets can be secured by text for a fiver. If you can prove you’re a student, the tariff is the merest £4, for which they throw in a free beer. Which you can of course bring into the concert hall in a plastic cup. They don't do that round the corner at Festival Hall, not even for the Venezuelans.

Once you’re in, the main rule is that rules are there to be broken. Dress down, obviously. There are not a lot of suits in the audience, or sensible haircuts. Or furrowed contemplation of the OAE’s excellent programme notes. And talk - talk whenever you like. Around me last night as Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted the OAE, there was a constant sussuration of hushed backchat. Best to think of it as radio crackle, I told myself, or historic-recording 78rpm hiss. It’s slightly harder to recalibrate the louder mumble of actual yak from people who don’t know about whispering. But if you can’t cope with it, you shouldn’t be here.

The Night Shift feature on YouTube

The general impression created by a Night Shift is of a predominantly young audience, the prized holy grail for all concert halls, actually enjoying themselves. One way in which that is manifested is in clapping between movements. It’s not as if this is policy. It seems a spontaneous response to the music. If you don’t clap at the end of a movement, you will feel decidedly left out. It might not be right for Mahler or Wagner, whom the orchestra have been known to perform, or Elgar whom they’re doing next month. But who is to say that it isn’t more appropriate to the music of the Age of Enlightenment?

Importantly, people also wander around. It’s not quite Piccadilly Circus, but there is no closing the doors after a movement has started. If you’re late, come right on in. Feel free also to cough fortissimo during the soloist’s cadenza. (OK, maybe not, though someone did last night.) At the end of one symphonic movement, a door banged as if a perfectly timed contribution to the timpani line.

Informality extends to rupturing the barrier between audience and orchestra. In other halls conductors do occasionally fling out the odd quip in the direction of their audience, usually in the encore. Before he took the logical step into television, Charles Hazlewood made a career out of explaining the work he was conducting. The Night Shift goes the whole hog and has an onstage compere in the form of Alistair Appleton. The presenter of BBC1’s Cash in the Attic moonlights as the OAE’s master of ceremonies. He introduces the musicians, says “fantastic” and “amazing” a lot and, most pertinently, interviews the conductor and soloist about the work they are performing (picture right).

Haydn's symphonies are civilised conversations in themselves, so why not converse about them?

The OAE collaborates with conductors as ancient as Sir Charles Mackerras and as young as Robin Ticciati. The ones at the lower end of that six-decade spectrum are better adapted to this sort of work. Edward Gardner earlier this year accessibly explained the sheer weirdness of Haydn’s Symphony No 60. Nézet-Séguin was dressed for a party: for his Night Shift debut the French-Canadian rising star came on glutching a glass of red wine and hemmed into a tight black T-shirt. He looked like a short noisy member of Brando’s gang in The Wild Bunch. Asked about working with the orchestra for the first time, no sooner had he mentioned seduction than Appleton was talking about sex and orgasms. “Did the earth move for you guys?” he said in the break after the first two movements of Symphony No 104. You wonder how many spins that would have generated in the hallowed grave of Herbert Von K.

Haydn is more suited than most to this approach, especially the more playful symphonies with their tricks and feints and major-key merriment. They are civilised conversations in themselves, so why not converse about them? And indeed through them? The OAE, whose marketing strategy has always been about blowing the cobwebs off masterpiece music, enter into the spirit. The only downside for the musicians is that it’s a long old night. Having performed a full programme at 7.30, they come back for the Night Shift at 10. For this year’s Haydn Night Shifts, that has meant doing three symphonies and a concerto for the early slot, then repeating one of the symphonies and the same concerto for the later one. It’s hard luck on the soloists. In the summer, principal flautist Lisa Beznosiuk found herself having to do the Mozart flute concerto twice in one night. This time it was the turn of David Blackadder, principal trumpet, to deliver Haydn’s lone trumpet concerto with a rich brilliant tone twice on the type of valved instrument that, as he explained to the audience, only Anton Weidinger could play when it was first written.

Unlike Beznosiuk, Blackadder forsook the opportunity to resume his seat and play the night out as part of the orchestra. The OAE as a whole got itchy feet around about 11. Offered the chance by Appleton to drop the third movement of the 104th, they grabbed it with all 80 or so hands. And so Nézet-Séguin, moving straight on to the last symphony movement Haydn ever composed, conducted with the rambunctious flair of a muscly boatswain. Very Night Shift, that.

The OAE perform Haydn's 64th Symphony at the Night Shift with Edward Gardner

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