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Arts Fest: Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Reviewed by Erica Challis

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Concert One: Tuesday, February 28
Wellington Town Hall

George Frederick Handel: The arrival of the Queen of Sheba
Matthew Locke: Suite The Tempest
Antonio Vivaldi: Flute Concerto No. 3 in D, RV428, “Del Gardinello”
Francesco Geminiani: Concerto Grosso No. 12 in d minor, “La Folia”
Jean-Philippe Rameau: Suite from Les Paladins
George Frederick Handel: Water Music, Suite No. 1 in F

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, small bands of inquisitive musicians started exploring the possibilities of playing early music played on original instruments. Their first efforts sounded squeaky and anaemic to concertgoers accustomed to the opulent sound of the modern symphony orchestra. But once those pioneers mastered their balky instruments, listeners heard lumbering warhorses of the orchestral repertoire reborn as the fiery, spirited thoroughbreds they were meant to be.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) demonstrated this immediately with The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, which they took at a cracking pace. The violins and violas played standing up, almost lunging into phrases that leapt and ebbed in volume with marvellous agility

As well as revitalising well-known works, the OAE has the gift of uncovering forgotten gems. In a bit of banter with the audience, leader Elizabeth Wallfisch introduced the next work, a suite by the English composer Matthew Locke. She invited us to revel in the quirky, archaic names Locke had used for his pieces, such as the “lilk” and “sarabrande” [sic]. “We’ve lost all those beautiful words in our language,” she said. The music matched the names, with the opening “curtain” a gentle music intended to draw in the listener. It rose and opened up gradually until interrupting itself with startling flights of fast scales. The following dances were, like their names, charming and quirky, with harmonies in the bass line that occasionally wandered in unexpected directions.

For the Vivaldi flute concerto, the orchestra reduced to seven players so flautist Lisa Beznosiuk had no trouble riding the fat, gorgeous sound of her keyless wooden flute over the accompaniment. Her dark, plummy low notes were a particular delight. Her cadenzas allowed her to make the flute call seductively like a bird calling for its mate, revealing the instrument’s capacity for subtle multiphonics. Like many original woodwind instruments, great rewards are coupled with great risk, and the flute proved that by treacherously slipping octaves once or twice.

The Geminiani concerto grosso brought the rest of strings back on stage. After a stately opening, they leapt into virtuosic runs, led in electrifying solos by Wallfisch. At times it seemed as if only the intervening harpsichord stopped her from dancing across the stage like a fencing master to challenge the cellists in a duel of bowmanship. The lead cello answered with lighting-fast bowing of his own. The other cellists joined in for a high-speed rattling unison passage that finished the concerto with a flourish.

The following Rameau suite was a marvellous contrast of light and shade, with oboes and bassoons chattering and burbling among the strings.

Two natural horns were brought in for the Water Music to present the opening fanfare with their peculiar muffled blaring sound. They brought a large palette of colours to the suite, from brassy to sweet to almost reedy. One moment sonorously grand, the next wild and raw, they made an exciting addition to the polish and refinement of the strings without dominating the music entirely as modern horns would.

The Town Hall was completely packed for this concert and comments overheard from the audience afterwards showed that it was a night they would remember. The orchestra’s stage manner was so easy and light-hearted that there was no barrier between performers and audience. Yet their playing was as tightly disciplined as a flight of starlings, able to turn on a dime and respond instantly to the least flicker of movement from the leader. But they did this all without losing a sense of joyful spontaneity. It was a privilege to hear an orchestra of this calibre live in New Zealand.

Concert Two: Wednesday, March 1, 7:30pm at the Town Hall. Duration 2 hours.


NZ Arts Festival: The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
The Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment website
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 2006

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