by Roderick Conway Morris

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10 Years of Enlightenment: An Unusual Orchestra Celebrates

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 4 December 1996


One of the most remarkable bands to emerge from the wildly popular early-music movement is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment -- a cooperative, player-run ensemble, with a core membership of about 70 musicians playing on period instruments that hires its conductors on a project-by-project basis.

This year the orchestra is celebrating its 10th anniver-sary, marked recently by a special birthday concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall of Haydn's 'Creation,' sung in German and directed by Roger Norrington. Backstage, during rehearsals, some of the players recalled the origins of the enterprise.

Marshall Marcus, a violinist and the OAE's current elected chairman, said, 'During the '80s, there was a feeling among a number of early-music musicians that we had become part of certain conductors' career vehicles as we whizzed around the world through endless airport lounges, hotels and concert halls. And gradually the idea was born that there was no reason why we shouldn't have more control over the musical direction of our own lives, rather than being bound to the plans of a single conductor.

'And we realized that if we could get ourselves together, we could work not only with other British, but also foreign directors of period instruments that otherwise we would never have access to -- and even 'modern' conductors that were interested in changes of styles of performance, but who had no opportunity to direct period instruments.'

The result has been a resounding success. The OAE has had a stream of recording contracts, done numerous foreign tours, has been made associate orchestra of the Royal Festival Hall and has been invited to play at the Royal Opera House and Glyndebourne (where the musicians did a highly praised version of Handel's 'Theodora' this year). And, while they maintain their policy of having no permanent directors, they currently have two principal guest conductors, the early music specialist Frans Bruggen and Sir Simon Rattle. (When appropriate, they dispense with a conductor altogether, with one of the players directing from an instrument, which they did, for example, for their concerts and recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos.)

Most of the players have previously held positions with other orchestras, but have opted for a more free-spirited, if riskier, working life.

'London has the largest pool of free-lance musicians anywhere,' Marcus said, 'and this goes back as far as the time of Handel and the rise of the entrepreneurial music scene, the first of its kind in the world.

'When Berlioz came to London he complained that he couldn't get the players to stay for extra rehearsals because they were all off to other engagements elsewhere. And there's still this enormous contrast with the Continent today, where many musicians feel that if they haven't got tenure by the age of 30, they've had it -- whereas a lot of us here simply don't want to be tied down in that way.'


WHILE the first period-instrument groups tended to specialize in certain epochs, the OAE is typical of the trend to tackle a wider range of music, even overrunning the territory once considered the preserve of mainstream orchestras -- such as Verdi's 'Alzira' at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in July, again attracting favorable reviews. 'I suppose you could say we mainly cover what the historian Roy Porter has called 'the long 18th century,' but in fact we perform music from the mid-17th to the late 19th century,' Marcus said.

This extended span clearly causes more headaches for wind players than the strings.

'String instruments evolv-ed gradually, there are no exact cut-off dates and its quite clear that an orchestra in the mid-19th century, say, could well have included violins from different periods at the same time,' Marcus said. 'By Verdi's day, even though the more up-to-date violins had come to resemble the 'modern' violin quite closely, they were still playing on gut strings. So, for 19th-century music a player with the right kind of classical instrument can adjust it by changing or taking off the chin rest and putting on gut strings.'

Wind players, on the other hand, have a far harder job finding the historically right instrument.

'Orchestras had the most incredibly diverse range of wind instruments, especially in the early 19th century,' said oboist Dick Earle, who also makes instruments.

'I have about 30 instruments, about 10 or 12 of which I use pretty regularly,' said fellow oboist Anthony Robson. 'It's a fairly dazzling array, and all rather complicated because they all take different reeds and set-ups. But it's worth it to be able to work with the range of directors we do, and play a breadth of repertoire you never dreamed you'd ever get round to playing.'

Norrington, that evening's conductor, founded the London Classical Players in 1978, 'with the specific aim of exploring historical performance practice,' and was one of the first to be invited to direct the OAE a decade ago.

'Orchestras ought to be run by the players, because it's good for them to feel they are working for themselves -- and that's where the future lies,' Norrington said. 'And when I go now to conduct the Boston Symphony or to Berlin, or wherever, I rather like being the guest. I'm used to this relationship, and I don't actually want to be running the whole shop. And I certainly hope to be working with the OAE even more in the next few years.'

'There has been an enormous change in attitude toward the period-instrument movement in the musical world,' he said. 'Instead of saying: 'It's rubbish, it'll go away,' as they were still doing 10 years ago, they now realize it has something to offer everybody musically. I've been conducting in places as far apart as Los Angeles, Vienna and Stockholm, and the players there are now asking: 'Should we be doing vibrato here? And, couldn't we do this in a more 18th-century way?' and so on. Of course, what we were doing was dismissed for a long time,' said Marcus. 'So it's extremely interesting to see the influence we're finally having on the way modern orchestras play -- and we're glad now to feel that we don't inhabit a ghetto.'


THE whiff of victory and the triumphant conquest of neighboring periods has nonetheless left some of the pioneers of the wilderness years with a lingering sense of nostalgia. 'I sometimes feel that we've got away from the innocence of the early days of the baroque scene,' said Anthony Robson. 'Things were a lot more rough and ready, but there was a kind of raw beauty about it. So it's very good to go back and play a lot of baroque music every so often. It's wonderful to play Bach again, for example, if you haven't played him for six months. It's just balm to the soul.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024