Thursday, 23 June 2016

Something delightful from something old - L'Avventura London and The Old Blind Dogs

L'Avventura London
L'Avventura London
Orpheus Caledonius; L'Avventura London, The Old Blind Dogs, Siobhan Miller; Spitalfields Music Summer Festival at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 10 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Period performance and folk come together in this exploration of William Thomson's Orpheus Caledonius collection.

Siobhan Miller - photo James Morrison
Siobhan Miller - photo James Morrison
A baroque/ folk mashup is not what you would normally expect from a Friday night (10 June 2016) at St Leonard's Church in Shoreditch. But this is exactly what Spitalfields Summer Music Festival has done. Based around William Thomson's 1725 book of Scottish songs Orpheus Caledonius, L'Avventura London, The Old Blind dogs and Siobhan Miller made something delightful from something old.

William Thomson (1695–1753), originally a Scot, moved to London in around 1722. He was a collector of traditional Scottish music and retained many Scottish students. Orpheus Caledonius is his collection of Scottish songs which, unusually for their time, have their tunes and some ornamentation and accompaniment attached. Such was his lasting influence, described L'Avventura London's director Žac Ozmo during the preconcert talk, that other composers such as Haydn produced settings of these songs.

The Old Blind Dogs - photo Louis DeCarlo
The Old Blind Dogs - photo Louis DeCarlo
Ozmo further said that the aim of the concert was to "depict[...] as close as possible the emotional context of the time" and to explore the cultural differences between high art and folk music, explaining that "the divide was very porous in the 18th century".

The two sides of the project also talked about the differences in learning music. The baroque group read and learn from music, while Siobhan and Aaron from the folk groups described their difficulty with the written notes, because theirs is an aural tradition with each student learning and then putting their own stamp on it. Some of the songs in Orpheus Caledonius are still performed today, although because of this process the music is different.

This written account by Thomson is therefore a "snapshot" in time. So while the performers were interested in the historical account provided by Orpheus Caledonius, especially because it is in Old Scots dialect and some of the words are no longer used, they were not too worried if in learning the music they made some changes. For one well known song, The Broom of Cowdenknowes, they decided to use the old lyrics and the modern version of the tune, and for Highland Laddie they expanded the one line melody to produce a more complex song.


Throughout the concert the performers introduced the songs. For instance Bessy Bell and Mary Gray, played by both groups together and featuring Siobhan's beautifully haunting voice, has two versions. In one version the two girls run away to escape the plague, but one dies anyway, in another the song is an upbeat song extolling their virtues.

The second song Tweedside performed by L'Avventura started off being pretty, polite and restrained, but folksy elements drifted in with the violin using a fiddle technique of sliding on and off notes, and vocalisations were added by The Old Blind Dogs. In contrast The Lass of Patie's Mill performed by the folk side of the stage had baroque-style ornamentation to the tune.

Some of the songs, such as Bush aboon Traquair, Auld Rob Morris, and Muirland Willie had bawdy and humorous lyrics with more than a hint of the comic opera, which became more popular throughout the 18th century, about them. For example, The Beggar's Opera written in 1728 by John Gay featured Scottish folk tunes alongside other popular music and hymns. Bush aboon Traquair was paired with Sonata in D major based on the same melody by Francesco Geminiani (1687- 1762), who lived most of his adult life in London.

Unexpectedly Siobhan also entertained the audience with traditional dancing in a couple of the songs including Blythsome Bridal and the rousing finale, O'er Bogie.

With so many instruments and styles to chose from everyone had a chance to shine, and changes in orchestration brought something new to each song. Polwart on the green featured the harpsichord and cello and segued into a Sonata of Scots tunes by James Oswald (1711-1749) where the tunes including Polwart on the Green were subject to baroque variations, and for the " bonnier" Lochaber Siobhan was accompanied by guitar and lute with recorder instrumentals.

As the concert progressed the idea that the rich might be sat in their parlours playing consort music and everyone else at home playing folk instruments, yet both playing the same tunes, was laid before us. The patterns within the harmonies of high art may have been more polite and contrived, as befitted a fashionable audience (imagine Marie Antoinette in her shepherdess costume only a few years later), but the cultural gulf was not so wide that at this time the two could not be overlaid. Folk music has continued to inspire composers to this day.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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