Current Issue #488

Orchestra of the Age Of Enlightenment Delights in Music's To-and-Fro

Orchestra of the Age Of Enlightenment Delights in Music's To-and-Fro

The Orchestra of the Age Of Enlightenment (OAE) is coming out to Australia in November 2017, and it will be their first visit to Adelaide.

Violinist Rachel Podger will lead them in two Mozart Concertos (nos 1 and 5), Haydn’s Symphony no 36, and JC Bach’s fiery little Symphony in G minor, op 6 no 6 – all music from the Enlightenment, from which era the orchestra gains its name. And there’s a curious extra thing about OAE that underpins its moniker.

It runs entirely on democratic principles. No conductor or management dictates its a airs; instead the players decide everything via their own elected Artistic Direction Committee. It owes to how OAE began in the mid-80s, as a breakaway group of orchestral musicians in London who were tired of working under celebrity early-music conductors and yearned to do something different.

They set off as an independent, self-governing orchestra that could choose its own music and invite conductors on a project-by-project basis. The idea worked. OAE quickly became one of the world’s leading period instrument orchestras, and their roll call of conductors reads like a catalogue of who’s-who from both the historical performance and mainstream arenas: Gustav Leonhardt, Sigiswald Kuijken and Frans Brüggen from one side, and Simon Rattle, Yannick Nézet-Sé guin, Marin Alsop and (Australia’s) late Charles Mackerras on the other.

Their repertoire is equally pluralist, stretching from Bach and Mozart right up to Berlioz and even Mahler.

orchestra-age-enlightenment-musica-viva-adelaide-reviewOAE prides itself on a “democratic” approach to its orchestra

Podger’s relationship with the orchestra is distinctive, because as both a player and conductor she feels a special kinship with its members – many of whom she has known since student days when she learned Baroque violin at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Those close ties held strong while she went on to co-found the Palladian Ensemble and Florilegium and later play with London Baroque, Gabrieli Consort and The English Concert. “By the time OAE asked me to be a guest conductor I felt incredibly privileged,” she says.

“Everyone’s in the same boat, and we all want the same result, which is a moving and expressive result for us but also for the audience. As musicians we want to be there as a channel for the composer, but at the same time one can’t help but feel the music on a personal level. You play it one way and hear what one did and hear how another section of the orchestra responds to that. “I find the audience picks up on that, and this is one of my pet things – how an audience connects with that.”

orchestra-age-enlightenment-musica-viva-adelaide-reviewOAE’s Matthew Truscott inspects his violin

For Podger, this is precisely where many of music’s unscripted joys reside. She says that when she’s guesting with other ensembles or orchestras she likes to come in with an open mind, and be on the lookout for where the music can take a different expressive course, depending on how musical minds meet in any given moment.

The hierarchical structure of traditional orchestras usually makes that difficult, but in OAE the ethos is different. “I love the democratic feel of the group,” Podger says. “There is not the feeling of powering down and doing what a conductor demands. It is a spirit in which everybody is happy to speak up and get involved. It gives it a different flavour.”

Admired as a natural, easy and vivacious musician, she recoils from stuffy thinking. It shows in her lively personality and the way she delights in music’s to-and-fro in performance.

Spreading into new repertoire is something that also appeals to her for the same reason. Podger’s specialty is the period of Biber and Bach up to Schubert, although she laughs about one incident when her husband (violist Tim Cronin) asked her if she could fill in and play Shostakovich in his chamber ensemble.

“I said ‘Oh my gosh, that sounds very tricky’ but it is very good for one’s musical understanding to appreciate that span,” she says. “I believe it is important to engage with all these composers. It takes a lot of study and experience, but to be able to go into later composers from having started in Baroque music gives one a completely different perspective.

Playing Mozart is a revelation if you’ve played Bach. Both are different in style, yes, but they are different also in their lives – their trials and tribulations. It is wonderful if you can incorporate some of those dimensions in performance.” She is thankful the early music movement has progressed in attitude. To begin with it was driven by puritanical ideas about authenticity.

“Things are a bit more mellow now,” she reflects. “As players, some are more academically inclined and might read the scores on the train on their way to a rehearsal. Others will not. That’s all wonderful. We all are able to feast on this. Things crop up all the time, whether it is a new portrait of Mozart or a new manuscript that’s been recently discovered in Peru.”

orchestra-age-enlightenment-musica-viva-adelaide-reviewOAE’s Hayley Pullen poses with her bassoon

By the same token, the mainstream is more accepting and willing to have a go at historically informed performance. Podger tells of when she recently played with the BBC National Orchestra and how she was handing out gut strings to the musicians for some Baroque pieces on the program.

“They were absolutely amazed at this string-changing thing. I think a very different world opened up to them. “Orchestras used to be scared of playing Bach and Mozart, thinking they don’t know how to play this any more. But it’s different now. Musicians are branching out.”

Orchestra of the Age Of Enlightenment plays in Adelaide in November 2017 See Musica Viva’s 2017 brochure at

Photos: Eric Richmond

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