Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

The OAE Image credit: Eric Richmond Harrison and co

About the OAE

Just over two decades ago, a group of inquisitive London musicians took a long hard look at that curious institution we call the Orchestra, and decided to start again from scratch. They began by throwing out the rulebook. Put a single conductor in charge? No way. Specialise in repertoire of a particular era? Too restricting. Perfect a work and then move on? Too lazy. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was born.

And as this distinctive ensemble playing on period-specific instruments began to get a foothold, it made a promise to itself. It vowed to keep questioning, adapting and inventing as long as it lived. Those original instruments became just one element of its quest for authenticity. Baroque and Classical music became just one strand of its repertoire. Every time the musical establishment thought it had a handle on what the OAE was all about, the ensemble pulled out another shocker: a Symphonie Fantastique here, some conductor-less Bach there. All the while, the orchestra’s players called the shots.

At first it felt like a minor miracle. Ideas and talent were plentiful; money wasn’t. Somehow, the OAE survived to a year. Then to two. Then to five. It began to make benchmark recordings and attract the finest conductors. It became the toast of the European touring circuit. It bagged distinguished residencies at the Southbank Centre and Glyndebourne Festival Opera. It began, before long, to thrive.   

And then came the real challenge. Eccentric idealists the ensemble’s musicians were branded. And that they were determined to remain. In the face of the music industry’s big guns, the OAE kept its head. It got organised but remained experimentalist. It sustained its founding drive but welcomed new talent. It kept on exploring performance formats, rehearsal approaches and musical techniques. It searched for the right repertoire, instruments and approaches with even greater resolve. It kept true to its founding vow.

In some small way, the OAE changed the classical music world too. It challenged those distinguished partner organisations and brought the very best from them, too. Symphony and opera orchestras began to ask it for advice. Existing period instrument groups started to vary their conductors and repertoire. New ones popped up all over Europe andAmerica.

And so the story continues, with ever more momentum and vision. The OAE’s series of nocturnal Night Shift performance have redefined concert parameters. Its new home atLondon’sKings Placehas fostered further diversity of planning and music-making. Great performances now become recordings on the orchestra’s in-house CD label, OAE Released. The ensemble has formed the bedrock for some of Glyndebourne’s most groundbreaking recent productions. It travels as much abroad as to theUKregions:New YorkandAmsterdamcourt it,BirminghamandBristolcherish it.

Remarkable people are behind it. Simon Rattle, the young conductor in whom theOAEplaced so much of its initial trust, still cleaves to the ensemble. Iván Fischer, the visionary who punted some of his most individual musical ideas on the young orchestra, continues to challenge it. Mark Elder still mines for luminosity, shade and line. Vladimir Jurowski, the podium technician with an insatiable appetite for creative renewal, has drawn from it some of the most revelatory noises of recent years. All four share the title Principal Artist.

Of the instrumentalists, many remain from those brave first days; many have come since. All seem as eager and hungry as ever. They’re offered ever greater respect, but continue only to question themselves. Because still, they pride themselves on sitting ever so slightly outside the box. They wouldn’t want it any other way.

© Andrew Mellor, 2011

The OAE at Glyndebourne

A Marriage Made in Heaven

Some of life’s most significant events are born out of adversity, and as Nicholas Kenyon, Managing Director of the Barbican Centre, memorably put it, ‘the epoch-making Mozart Idomeneo of 1987 with Simon Rattle, so nearly cancelled for lack of money, turned out to be the way into Glyndebourne and Mozart.’ Remarkably, little more than a year after the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s first concerts in June 1986, it had not only secured a contract with the fledgling record label Virgin Classics, but also, with Rattle’s unshakeable support (he confessed that conducting Idomeneo with the OAE ‘changed my life’) was invited to perform a new cycle of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas at Glyndebourne, starting with The Marriage of Figaro in 1989. As bassoonist and founder-member Felix Warnock later recalled, ‘We were on the map.’

The inaugural production of The Marriage of Figaro proved axiomatic in the Orchestra’s ongoing development as a cohesive outfit with a consistent body of players at its core. ‘Having a regular team doing 16 performances on the trot paid enormous dividends in terms of the ensemble,’ explains librarian and violist Colin Kitching, ‘the discipline was so good for the Orchestra and it clarified capabilities.’ Principal oboist Anthony Robson remembers the production as the ‘the moment when the Orchestra really arrived,’ while for principal flutist Lisa Beznosiuk it was a life-changing experience: ‘after the first Figaro, I thought I would be happy to die now, playing that wonderful music at that level.’

Simon Rattle was in absolutely no doubt about the success of this groundbreaking venture, the first to feature a conductor associated primarily with modern orchestras. ‘Period instruments have more colour, flavour, shape, and less weight than modern ones. They are more tangy, more piccante,’ he enthused. ‘We can play full out with the greatest passion, and still sound like Mozart.’ The effect was enhanced by the special atmosphere of Glyndebourne’s unique setting in the glorious East Sussex countryside. ‘You really feel like part of a family,’ reflects Vice Chairman and violist Martin Kelly. ‘It offers a wonderfully relaxed and supportive working environment, which encourages the musicians put on the best show possible.’

Glyndebourne Opera was founded in 1934 by John Christie and his wife Audrey Mildmay with the intention of achieving ‘not just the best we can do but the best that can be done anywhere.’ Starting out as a 300-seater auditorium, by the time the OAE arrived on the scene in 1989, the theatre had reached a working maximum of 850. The need for a new, higher capacity venue was already on the agenda, but it was the old theatre’s tendency to dampen the sound and impact of original instruments that emphasised the need for a more sensitive acoustic.

The Orchestra’s final production in the old theatre at Glyndebourne was a triumphant Così fan tutte in 1991 with Simon Rattle. Deeply moved by the enhanced intimacy and flexibility of period instruments, baritone Thomas Allen tearfully declared that had he sung regularly with the OAE it would have lengthened his singing career by 10 years. The opening of Glyndebourne’s new 1200-seat theatre in 1994 was marked by the last in the great Mozart trilogy, Don Giovanni. Relishing the greater clarity and physical projection offered by the new acoustic, the OAE had never sounded better. But this was only the beginning.

If at its outset in the 1950 and 60s, authentic performance practice was fuelled by a desire to turn back the historical clock, to rediscover what Baroque and Classical music sounded like then, the OAE has always felt passionately about the contemporary significance of their work – the excitement of revealing the full expressive potential of earlier music to a modern audience. This reached a whole new level with a groundbreaking Glyndebourne staging of Handel’s oratorio Theodora in 1996 by maverick theatre director, Peter Sellars. Nothing could have been further removed from Arnold Östman’s historical recreations at Drottningholm’s Court Theatre in Sweden. Sellars transformed Handel’s tale of doomed love between a Christian virgin and Roman bodyguard in 4th century Antioch into a modern American political allegory, which has since established itself as a modern classic. ‘There was a special magic about that production,’ remembers Martin Kelly. ‘It was one of those rare musical happenings when all the various elements – orchestra, conductor (William Christie), singers (including Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw) and director – were in perfect alignment.’

With the beginning of a new millennium came the dawn of a new era as in 2001 the OAE was invited to become (alongside the London Philharmonic) one of Glyndebourne’s official resident orchestras. The Orchestra could hardly have wished for a better start to the new relationship than with a gripping production of Beethoven’s Fidelio under Simon Rattle, which went on to win the Royal Philharmonic Society Opera Award. Again the juxtaposition of Deborah Warner’s contemporary vision and the breathtaking range of colours produced by the Orchestra produced thrilling results. ‘The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment audibly relished this most symphonic of operas,’ enthused Fiona Maddocks in The Observer, ‘with the horns especially virtuosic.’

2002 witnessed a new departure for the Orchestra at Glyndebourne as they moved into the world of Romantic opera with Weber’s Euryanthe under Mark Elder. ‘There’s still a sufficient difference between the way instruments sounded during the early 19th century, for period instruments now to bring out something fresh and unusual in the music,’ explains Glyndebourne’s General Director (and former General Manager of the OAE) David Pickard. The result was an outstanding success: an opera that had previously struggled to find a foothold in the regular performing repertoire was brought vividly to life. As Andrew Clements reported in The Guardian, ‘The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was urged along by Elder at maximum horsepower and responded to Weber's sleights of orchestration with some outstanding playing.’ Such was the success of this experiment that in 2007 the OAE once again moved forward gently in time with a production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola that had the critics in raptures.

Bringing us right up to date, 2011 witnessed the latest in a run of spectacular OAE Handel productions in the form of Rinaldo, a politically challenging story (and a first for Glyndebourne) set originally in Jerusalem at the time of the First Crusade, conducted with charismatic intensity by Ottavio Dantone. The OAE’s dedication to music education took on a special significance during the preparations for this production when the players joined forces with students from Varndean College and Blatchington Mill School to perform extracts from Rinaldo and pieces composed especially by them in response to Handel’s blazing original. Martin Kelly remembers with particular affection the final Glyndebourne performance of Rinaldo: ‘Dantone came up on stage to take his bow and the Orchestra (knowing that he had once been a promising young footballer) threw a ball up to him that had been signed by the entire outfit and he gave us all a brief glimpse of his footwork. It was a special moment that I can’t imagine happening anywhere else.’

Julian Haylock © 2012

Find out more on the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Website

Photo: Eric Richmond/Harrison & Co

Why is there a time limit?

Due to demand from other customers seats are reserved for a maximum of 20 minutes in order to allow you to complete your purchase. If the order has not been completed within this time, all seats will be removed from your basket.