Music: Birth of the Symphony Academy of Ancient Music

I took some notes during the Academy of Ancient Music’s season opener at Wigmore Hall last night. It was difficult not to.

The combination of the salon acoustic and my close proximity to the small band on stage made the AAM’s performance a wholly immersive experience. None of the players were stragglers. None of them could afford to be. Attention to detail was a given. And we could all witness the results of that attention. This wasn’t merely period performance. It was an intensely intimate concert. As such it was difficult not to get caught up in the performance. And for those of us who find it difficult to resist documenting every experience we have, I had no choice but to reach for my pen.

AAM Notes

Intimacy is the key to listening to the AAM’s programmes. Like the OAE’s pub gig a few weeks back, an intimate performance will deliver as near to the experience a musician has on stage without us the audience having to know how to play. Not only are we more immersed in the performance than perhaps we are in a larger concert hall where the audience is comparatively detatched from what’s going on on stage, but the immediacy of the acoustic makes an appreciaton of the innermost workings of the piece an added benefit. Not only that, we the audience also form personal connections with players. We can’t not connect with them.

Take the Allegro in Handel’s Sinfonia from Saul. Sure, there were other players on stage at the same time, but this movement was principal oboist Susanne Regel’s moment. We were carried by her mastery of the instrument.  Little wonder the applause swelled when she stood up at the end of the work. Scurrying strings – or ‘bubbling’ when heard the Bach Sinfonia in the second half – are usually taken for granted. But when you’re reasonably close and can see the effort put in and the results of that effort it’s impossible not to feel a certain warmth for the performers. The Presto in Stamitz’ Sinfonia in D major was another point in the programme when that effort was electrifying. The word ‘taut’ fitted last night (see above) and it still applies today as I write.

But there was another unexpected observation to be made, something which pointed to a considerably more connected performance for audience and players alike. Recorded music – studio recordings particularly – make us picky consumers. So much so that a live performance will highlight more of the jeopardy performers face than perhaps we would like. Us armchair ‘experts’ will pass judgment on a performance based on accuracy, rather than spirit. It’s the latter which is important. And it’s the latter which is subject to jeopardy.

And that jeopardy is heightened in authentic performance and period instruments. Not only does that in turn contribute to a potentially ‘authentic’ experience, but it also means that as the audience we connect with individual members of the band when the risks involved in playing period instruments become ever more obvious.

The experience – albeit on a much smaller scale – is something akin to watching a gripping immersive drama on TV or what I imagine supporting your favourite football team is like in a crucial match. And that really only comes out of close proximity to the stage where the smaller number of players inevitably exposes their playing.

This combined with the inevitably shorter length of complete works in an imaginatively constructed concert programme made for a tantalising experience. A collection of works intended to show how the symphony began. Shorter works equalled more works which in itself meant we could appreciate the significant differences across six different composers’ ‘symphonies’. Compare and contrast has never been easier. Far from being overwhelmed, it became easier to engage with what was going on and to come out of the event having learnt a thing or two.

The printed programme helped, underpinning the strong narrative thread running through the concert.  Handy pictures provided some context in a way images haven’t necessarily aided my concert-going experience in the recent past. What we heard was a story over 43 years. A series of musical footprints along a path towards Haydn’s 49th symphony (c1768). Give something some musical context (instead of playing it isolation) and it comes alive on a multitude of levels.

But all of this is academic. What shone in this concert was the remarkable energy which exuded from the stage at Wigmore Hall. A handful of players combined stunning virtuosity and breathtaking mastery of dynamic range with unequivocal signs they were enjoying the music they were making. And it needs to be bottled and preserved before we overlook it and lose it.

Or, if you think we can’t actually do that, you should just get along to another AAM gig as soon as you can.

(Oh .. and in case you’re wondering. I’m still not really clear what all the excitement is with Handel.)

Wigmore Hall

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