Monday, June 11, 2012

My first night shift

 I'd never ventured to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Night Shift series before, having assumed that I'd be a bit over-the-hill for the target age group - as you know, I'm 29... But the promise of hearing Simon Rattle (left) conducting the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer was irresistible, so last night your intrepid writer set out into the monsoon with mac and brolly to see what all the fuss was about.

Here's what happens. The OAE finishes its first concert of the evening - normal stuff - about 9pm. As the old audience flocks out of the RFH foyer, the new one flocks in. There's live music by the bar, in this case a folk-rock singer whose identity eludes me, with violinist and bassist; a lively atmosphere ensues as everyone meets their friends and enjoys the party feel. Then there's a short concert with announcer and chit-chat with the performers from 10pm to 11pm, and finally a DJ sets up in the foyer until midnight.

A range of creative ideas helps to recruit audience members: you can get a ticket for just £5 with the TextTicket scheme, or there's a four-for-three offer, and now the OAE has launched a venture for the Night Shift in the form of a Loyalty Card, with which you can save up a stamp for each NS concert you attend and eventually exchange them, at various levels, for a beer mat, a pint glass or an invitation for drinks backstage with the performers before the show. More details on their website.

Having so said, we didn't get off to the best start. Folk-rock doesn't always do it for me and my companion for the evening pronounced himself utterly allergic. Friends assured us that they'd heard worse, but when the no doubt very nice and very good singer started asking people to sing along, we slunk off and cowered with a glass of something at the furthest-away table we could find.

On the one hand, there's an argument that we should just have gone to the 7pm concert. Much more in-hall music, including Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande and the Ravel Left Hand Piano Concerto on an Erard with Pierre-Laurent Aimard - and no monkey business. But on the other hand, the atmosphere inside the hall for the 10pm concert was something rather special.

A guest presenter, surrounded by welcoming pink light, got Simon and members of the orchestra talking about the music and the historic instruments on which they were playing it. Simon is a persuasive speaker at the best of times - and though a 'normal' audience might read some of what he said in programme notes, the impact is altogether more striking when it comes straight from the maestro's own chops. The flautist talked about why she loves playing Debussy with Simon; the horns demonstrated the difference in expected playing technique between 1904 and 2012; the oboist enthused about his unusual instrument. There's a sense of sharing, an atmosphere of downright friendliness, that really does make a difference. The end result is that the Night Shift audience could well have ended up much better informed than the 7pm one.

Despite the presenter's exhortations that we should all feel relaxed and were free to leave and re-enter the hall any time during the performance, only one person did so. Otherwise, the Night Shift audience was as quiet as the promenaders. I have it on good authority that the 7pm audience had had a cough-fest. We didn't. Perhaps everyone was as mesmerised by Simon's way with Debussy as I was. He has such an instinct for the pacing, ebb and flow of this music, for the confluence of image and symbol (we never heard the word 'Symbolism' in the intros - maybe we could, someday, as its use is not yet illegal) and the sheer refulgent gorgeousness of it that you could be swallowed up by its beauty and wish never to emerge.

Extra fascination in the use of instruments of Debussy's time: that super-astringent oboe was something you'd recognise from historical recordings; the horns and other brass were finer, lighter, mellower; the flute had a darker, stiller timbre, suggestive of pan-pipes; the gut strings add seductive colour and make a subtle difference to the balance and blend. Simon pointed out that he'd never heard Debussy on original instruments before this tour; it's not generally done. He compared the instruments' tones to the combination of flavours in a Thai meal: a squeeze of lime juice, a smattering of chilli.

In the end, I wasn't too long-in-tooth for the Night Shift. People of all ages attended; the youngest I saw must have been about seven, the oldest probably about 77. In between, plenty of 30-and-40-somethings besides 20-somethings. A younger audience than most concerts, yes. But this was about more than being young. This was an audience that wanted something a little different and knew where to find it.

Personally, I'd enjoy a halfway house. A concert in which the conductor and players talk to the audience - not at the expense of playing time, but enough to make a connection. In which the lighting is good - dark in the auditorium to encourage concentration, but soft and warm on stage. In which people feel relaxed enough to move about, but choose not to because they want to hear the music. In which you can take in something to drink, including hot chocolate when soaked through. I'd prefer an earlier start to my mix-and-match event, too - it's annoying to have to run out at the last note to catch one of the few trains that go your way at that hour. And if there's to be foyer music, it would be nice if it could be something idiomatic provided by members of the orchestra we're about to hear, rather than a disconnected genre.

I didn't stay for the DJ. Had to get that train... And besides, after the glories of La Mer I didn't fancy any more sound. If you've just heard Simon Rattle conducting Debussy, you want to hold the impression of it as long as humanly possible. You don't like it to be shoved aside by amplified pop. (Proofing my draft of this post, I noticed, by the way, that I mistyped that last remark as "amplified poop". Nuff said.)

But overall, full marks to the OAE not just for magnificent playing but also for creative thinking; and for their willingness to experiment with the new, as well as resuscitating the old in the form of those spot-on historic instruments.