The mood in classical music is boiling up right now. You sense it in audience behavior. At the Festhalle last week, Crispin Woodhead, executive director of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, took the stage ahead of a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor. The gist of his brief welcome, which was even shorter, was to thank the audience for buying tickets: by doing so, they support an organization that believes in excellence and believes in making music accessible to all. We all knew what he meant. There is no need to say the words “BBC” or “Singers” or “Arts Council” or “cuts”. But there was unexpected resistance. A man at the front started shouting and gesturing. The crowd jeered back to silence him, some in a language even more colorful than his own. For a moment the atmosphere was foul. He was escorted out. The performance began, grand and moving, and the loss was his.
Bach finished this two-hour choral work in 1749, a year before his death. His reason for writing it is unknown. He probably never heard it in its entirety, and perhaps never intended it as a single work. The challenge for the singers is immense. The choral writing is sometimes five-part, high-pitched, exposed, technically difficult, tiring. The 22-piece Choir of the Enlightenment was impeccable, each entry confident and precise, keeping up with the brisk tempos set by conductor Václav Luks in his OAE debut. The Czech-born, harpsichordist and horn player is a specialist in early music. His dedication and care showed in every bar and in the thoughtful coherence of the whole: look for his name.
The drama grew out of music and text without ever having imposed itself. The opening Kyrie was gentle, pleading, as befits the words “Lord have mercy.” As the work unfolded, colors and textures were expressed with convincing variety, supported by excellent soloists, notably soprano Julia Doyle, countertenor Tim Mead and baritone Roderick Williams. Of the many captivating moments, one in particular stood out. The transition from the quasi-mathematical choral writing of the Confiteor (“I confess a baptism for the forgiveness of sins”), through the mysterious, collapsing key changes – one of the strangest moments in all of Bach’s music – into the explosive Et exspecto (“And I look upon the resurrection of the dead”). As always on this work, the OAE instrumentalist reveled in her solo moments, with a superb continuo section providing a subtle backdrop, including Lisa Beznosiuk (flute), Roger Montgomery (horn) and the trumpet trio led by David Blackadder.
Woodhead went on to say after the audience’s interruption that the OAE – primarily a period instrument ensemble, but that description is akin to calling a car a box on wheels – has been based in a north London state school since 2020. the first residency of this kind. The auditorium is their rehearsal room, the players deal with students and have teamed up with them for music, dance and video projects. This example, which has received little serious attention, could shape future British music if the BBC continues to undo a century of effort. (On Friday morning, in a U-turn, a statement from the BBC announced the suspension of the closure of BBC Singers while alternative funding proposals are considered. We await further news.)
Amid the anger, justified and needed, the joy: In the vaulted splendor of Bristol Cathedral, another landmark ensemble that Aurora Orchestra led by Nicholas Collon, reminded us that music is important at every stage of life, including the last few years. They poured their heart and soul into a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to 120 residents from six Bristol Care Homes groups.
Musicians stood in the middle of the audience and played by heart in the characteristic Aurora mode, moving, swinging, swaying, smiling, always doing justice to the demands of Beethoven’s rhythmically urgent score. If you don’t want a trumpeter blowing your ear, say no, Collon instructed. Nobody did. The height and resonance of the old building (I counted seven seconds of reverberation on a certain final chord) made an already immersive experience overwhelmingly and excitingly loud. tears were shed.
The event, one in a series, was spearheaded by Bristol Beacon while its building – formerly Colston Hall – is being remodeled (it opens in November). Streaming to care homes has already been rolled out, but this was the first live event of its kind where the level of frailty among attendees was unlimited. Canceled in March 2020, last Wednesday’s trial was the dream of Geoff Crocker, chair of the care home group. In a one-hour concert in a cathedral, he told me about the challenges of overcoming the eventualities of physical disabilities, incontinence and dementia. The logistics – unbelievable; no need to enumerate – were handled with grace and joy.
Before Beethoven, Aurora also premiered Héloise Werner for Mira, a tender, sensual tribute to the late Mira Calix, a genius experimental composer. Thoughtful, generous, Werner’s short piece explored lost, found, cherished memories. It spoke to, for and about all of us.