Monday 5 October 2020

Bach, contentment and our perception of time: the OAE and Dr Fay Dowker at Kings Place

Audience and chorus practice those arm movements - the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Kings Place (Photo Kings Place)
Audience and chorus practice those arm movements
the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Kings Place (Photo Kings Place)

Bach, Byrd, Kirnberger, Roman; Zoe Brookshaw, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Steven Devine; Kings Place

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 04 October 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A delightfully dancing Bach cantata and a talk on our perception of time and how it affects the General Theory of Relativity made for a highly engaging Sunday morning

Bach, the Universe and Everything, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's monthly series combining a Bach cantata with a thought-provoking scientific lecture, continued this Summer without and audience. But, on Sunday 4 October 2020, audiences returned to Kings Place for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's latest instalment of Bach, the Universe and Everything, which combined Bach's cantata Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke BWV 84, directed by Steven Devine with soprano Zoe Brookshaw, with music by Kirnberger, Byrd and JH Roman, and a talk by Dr Fay Dowker, professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College, London.

To put us in the right mood, as audience members entered Crispin Woodhead, CEO of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, was playing an organ prelude. He then introduced the event and, in ordinary circumstances, would have rehearsed the audience in singing the chorale but as this is currently not allowed, the audience were given arm movements to do and everyone seemed to enjoy the participatory element of rehearsing these.

Then formal proceedings began, with Steven Devine playing a choral prelude, Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten by Johann Kirnberger (1721-1783), who was a pupil of JS Bach, which featured elaborate figurations over the chorale melody. Following this, the choir (Zoe Brookshaw, Daisy Walford, David Clegg, Tristram Cooke, Edward Ross, Matthew Beale, Michael Craddock, Thomas Lowen) sang Byrd's Justorum animae, a beautifully controlled and blended performance which unfolded slowly.

The morning's Bach cantata dealt with the subject of being happy with your lot, and there followed three short readings, from Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, TH White's The Sword in the Stone and the Pakistani theoretical physicist Abdus Salam's acceptance speech for his 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. These were read by viola player Max Mandel, and frankly were slightly too short, I would have happily heard more from each source.

Bach's cantata BWV 84 was probably written in Leipzig in 1727 and is in five movements, alternating arias and recitative with a closing chorale, and requiring just a solo soprano and small instrumental ensemble (Steven Devine - director/organ, Margaret Faultless & Nia Lewis - violins, Max Mandel - viola, Jonathan Manson - cello, Cecelia Bruggemeyer - bass, Katharina Spreckelsen - oboe), with Zoe Brookshaw as the solo soprano.

We started with an aria which was almost in a slow dance rhythm, featuring the lovely oboe playing of Katharina Spreckelsen who duetted with Zoe Brookshaw's delightfully engaging soprano. Through this and the following recitative, where words were to the fore, Brookshaw convinced us in her real contentment with her lot. This bubbled over in the next aria where Brookshaw seemed almost to dance, complemented by a fine duet between oboe and violin. An expressive accompanied recitative led to the dignified chorale (the choir being banished to the balcony for space reasons), with audience participation with those movements!

Brookshaw, with her clear, bright tone and poised way with ornamentation, made a highly engaging soloist, bringing a real sense of joy to Bach's writing, which was complemented by the lively sense of engagement of the instrumental players. 

There followed Dr Fay Dowker's fascinating talk about time. It was finely judged, full of intriguing information and insights without getting too theoretical for the layperson. Her theme was the idea that the passage of time is just an illusion, and the disagreement between scientists (which dates back millennia) as to whether time does or doesn't flow (being v. becoming). Currently, scientists believe that time does not flow, because Einstein's General Theory of Relativity seems to prevent this; Einstein's researches provided no evidence of a global physical now. Dowker and her team's research is seeking to reconcile the General Theory of Relativity with our perception of time.

The final music was a sinfonia by the Swedish composer Johan Helmich Roman (1694-1758), an engaging work which seemed to be something of a stately dance interrupted with madder moments.

As part of his spoken introduction, Crispin Woodhead told us about the OAE's recent change of location for its office. The orchestra has moved into Acland Burghley School in Camden, where it will be in residence, living, working and playing amongst the students. Three offices will be adapted for the administration team, alongside a recording studio and library. The school's Grade II listed assembly hall will be used as a rehearsal space, with plans to refurbish it under the school’s A Theatre for All project, so for the first time, the orchestra's players, staff and library will all be in the same place. Full details from the OAE website.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • Surrender to the craziness of it all: Poulenc's Aubade and Le Bal masqué at St John's Smith Square - concert review
  • Not toeing the line: Kristjan Järvi on deliberately creating his own sound-world on Nordic Escapes, his first disc of entirely his own music  - my interview
  • Toe-tapping arias & moments of drama: Vivaldi's Tamerlano from Ottavio Dantone & Accademia Bizantina  - Cd review
  • Shedding light on an important figure in the Irish literary renaissaince: the songs and airs of J. F. Larchet prove a real discovery - CD review
  • Abandonnata: Helen Charlston and Toby Carr in Monteverdi, Purcell, Strozzi and Owain Park  - concert review
  • Lamentate: Arvo Pärt's largest scale orchestral work recorded by Lithuanian forces in honour of the composer's 85th birthday  - CD review
  • Opera as community experience: Thomas Guthrie on his new projects exploring classic Schubert, creating a new secret library and urban operas  - interview
  • Richard Strauss, Coleridge-Taylor, Mahler: Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper in outstanding form at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • 'A strange profession' - looking forward to John Bridcut's film, Bernard Haitink, the Enigmatic Maestro - feature 
  • From Early English epic to music-theatre: Toby Young's Beowulf with the Armonico Consort and AC Academy choirs - CD review
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