Wednesday 26 April 2023

Music for wind from the OAE's Night Shift at Brixton's The Blues Kitchen

The Blues Kitchen, Brixton - the audience for the OAE's Night Shift
The Blues Kitchen, Brixton - the audience for the OAE's Night Shift

Night Shift
 - Telemann, Beethoven, Tomasi, Kagel, Françaix; members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; The Blues Kitchen, Brixton

An evening full of colour and vivid character as four of the OAE's wind players presented an engaging exploration of wind music, mixing the serious with the witty and the downright funny

The Night Shift is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's more casual concert series, popping up in pubs and other non-traditional venues, places that you might not associate with period instruments or even classical music. The only Night Shift that I had previously attended was an event in hall two at Kings Place, so it didn't really count, which meant that when one of my neighbours mentioned picking up an OAE leaflet in the local supermarket, I was intrigued.

The OAE's Night Shift popped up in Brixton's The Blues Kitchen on Tuesday 25 April 2023, when Katherine Spencer (clarinet), Katy Bircher (flute), Leo Duarte (oboe) and Chris Rawley (bassoon) performed a programme that moved from Telemann and Beethoven to French composers Henri Tomasi (1901-1971) and Jean Françaix (1912-1997) to Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) and beyond. Not quite a programme that you might expect from the OAE and certainly not one you'd expect in a blues bar in Brixton, yet it was all presented with style, aplomb and not a little fun and theatricality.

The performance took place in the upstairs bar, think distressed wood panelling, recycled stained glass, low lighting and red glitter balls, oh and a smoke machine just before the event started. And it began not with music, but with a sound installation by Gawain Hewitt that evoked birdsong, which gradually merged into Katy Bircher's performance of Telemann's Fantasy for Flute. She was wearing a gauzy cloak, dressed in green with green lighting, all very evocative and afterwards Katherine Spencer explained that the programme was exploring the idea of colour and music. Different pieces in the first half were presented in different colour lighting, and we even got to listen to a passage from Tomasi's Trio to decide what colour it should be (a purple-ish blue!).
The Telemann was followed by two movements from one of Beethoven's Duos for Clarinet and Bassoon, an early piece that stylistically harks back to Haydn and earlier. Katherine Spencer (clarinet) and Chris Rawley (bassoon) brought out a lively sense of dialogue in the work. This was followed by a work from the 1930s, Henri Tomasi's Concert champêtre for oboe, clarinet and bassoon performed by Duarte, Spencer, and Rawley playing on instruments of the period. A five-movement work that explored Baroque dance styles, the movements include a minuet and a bourree and conclude with a tambourin, for which volunteers were asked to play the drum! Leo Duarte's introduction to the piece talked about the period performance element, unlike the earlier works in the programme there are actually recordings of the three performers for whom the trio was written. The style was neo-classical yet with some rather intense and striking harmonies and each movement was full of colour, it was remarkable how the work held the audience's attention despite the non-classical surroundings. The second movement was almost neo-Medieval with some lovely high oboe playing from Duarte, whilst the final Tambourin was a sort of fife and drums on acid. Great fun.

After the interval, the fun really began. The four players appeared in unlikely costumes and were playing a quartet of different-sized chalumeaux. The chalumeau is the predecessor of the clarinet, but I had never seen such a variety of sizes. There was a lively discussion about how wind players in the past tended not to be specialists but to play all sorts of instruments, and also chat about the correct way to play the instrument! The sound was soft-grained with a feeling of instability to it, and the William Byrd piece was a lovely introduction to the sound world, and this was followed by a Medieval melody that I definitely recognised. They ended with a Spice Girls melody (hence the costumes which referenced each of the Spice Girls) which worked extremely well.

Next came something equally theatrical but very different. Duarte and Spencer moved to the back of the room for a theatre piece by Mauricio Kagel. Spencer played on a series of clarinets, in fact, the three instruments she used in the evening, experimenting and moving between the thoughtful and the angry. Duarte didn't play, but his constant movement with a music stand and his instrument provided a rhythmic backdrop to Spencer's performance. There were some vividly theatrical elements to the performance, including Duarte wrapping Spencer in clingfilm, and the two rather caught the right atmosphere.

We ended with something more formal, but still 20th century. Jean Françaix's Wind Quartet from 1933. The first movement was rather perky and quite jazzy, the second gently rocking with some spicy harmonies, the third full of notes and wit. The final movement alternated between fast chattering passages and slower more intense moments, with a lovely throw-away ending. Like the Tomasi, this was music full of character and colour, perfect for an ending to the evening.

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