London orchestra looks to past to make its future

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Conductor Simon Rattle calmly steps up to the podium in a London rehearsal hall and then unleashes pandemonium -- Berlioz style.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment practice at the Royal Festival Hall in central London May 29, 2007. REUTERS/Toby Melville

“Let’s do Berlioz a bit for his wild ride,” Rattle, onetime wunderkind of British conducting, now 53 and at the top of his game, said as he cued the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a rousing run-through of “Les Francs-Juges” -- the French Romantic composer’s depiction of the Spanish Inquisition.

“Simon is very good at telling us that at this part it’s where someone’s vein gets cut open,” Tony George, who plays a precursor of the tuba called the ophicleide -- which is what Berlioz scored his 1826 overture for -- said during a break.

“What you can do with this orchestra is really get to that imagery. So what you’ll hear is pretty much what Berlioz heard, only better, because we can really play it.

“It’s like Berlioz-plus.”

That may sound boastful, but the track record of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, founded 22 years ago with the twin goals of playing on period instruments, like the ophicleide, and of not having a fixed musical director, pretty much mirrors the “wild ride” Berlioz conjures up.

“My husband Tim was one of the four who got together on a cold night and decided they were fed up, they wanted to have some say in whom they played for,” said violist Jan Schlapp, whose husband Tim Mason, an OAE founder, died 11 years ago.

“I remember thinking this is an absolutely impractical idea, we’ll never get this off the ground. But the spark was there and it’s extraordinary how it’s developed.”

Competition is fierce in what has come to be known as the period instrument movement, which cherishes the special sound of vintage instruments, and the playing techniques and styles associated with them, but the OAE has risen to the top flight.

Although by design no big-name specialist period music conductor like Roger Norrington or John Eliot Gardiner fronted the band, the OAE has been, as its chief executive for the past 18 months Stephen Carpenter put it, “very lucky.”

“The players founded the OAE on a wing and a prayer, they didn’t know if it was going to work, and they needed funding,” Carpenter told Reuters in a recent interview at the orchestra’s sleek new headquarters at Kings Place, north London.

The digs in a new office block cum cultural center in the heart of the trendy area around the revamped Eurostar station at St. Pancras, is itself the result of a lucky encounter of OAE chairman Greg Melgaard and Kings Place developer Peter Millican.

“Greg said to Peter, ‘Why don’t you think of having an orchestra there?’ and about a year later he was phoned by Peter who said, ‘Let’s talk about that idea.’,” Carpenter said.

At the outset, similarly fortuitous encounters with music-minded London bankers helped get the OAE off the ground. Within two or three years “the orchestra really was on a roll and established a fantastic reputation,” Carpenter said.

It still might have remained one orchestra among many in the crowded London scene had it not been for Rattle.

He was invited in the late 1980s to conduct at Glyndebourne, Britain’s premiere summer opera festival, and as part of the deal asked that the OAE be in the pit. The upshot was that the OAE became an associate orchestra of Glyndebourne.

It also has gone from having no fixed conductor to having three “principal artists” -- Hungarian Ivan Fischer, conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic, and who else but Rattle.

“I think the business of not having a permanent director is to our advantage,” the initially skeptical Schlapp said.

“If we’re trying to sell concerts abroad we’ve got this huge choice -- we’ve got this with Jurowski, this with Fischer, this with Simon. So I think it’s actually the variety that helps.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the OAE’s growing reputation has won it engagements to die for. One of those was the orchestra’s 2004 U.S. tour with Italian mezzo and opera superstar Cecilia Bartoli singing arias by Salieri, a best seller on CD.

“It was the nearest I’ll ever get to playing in a pop concert,” violinist Alison Bury, the player-leader for those concerts, is quoted as saying in an in-house book.

So does the practice and rehearsal time -- these days in the underground hall at Kings Place -- pay off.

“How do we play Schumann after this?” Rattle asks rhetorically, Spanish Inquisition still ringing in the ear.

“We have to play Schumann after this. Let’s look at the first symphony...”

And with a flick of the baton, they’re off again.

Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato