OAE Night Shift, Kings Place, January 2016

Monteverdi at the Night Shift

Last night I performed some presenting duties at the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Night Shift concert at King’s Place.

Night Shift concerts, and their younger siblings Mini Night Shifts, are special affairs where people of all ages sit, stand or lounge, some with a drink in their hand, listening to an hour of music interspersed with a bit of chat. It is the most gloriously simple transaction. The concerts have been staged for at least six years and they’re still going strong. The crowds still keep coming for these beautifully intimate events (last night’s late night gig was attended by 120). This isn’t a fad.

On being a presenter

Presenting is a strange affair. I first had a stab at it in 2011. My confidence has improved, but I still recognise many of the observations I made after my first attempt in 2011.

As presenter, you’re not necessarily called upon to be the expert, but your primary role is to link between music, getting the performers to share their expert knowledge. They are the ones with the years of professional experience, the ones who have immersed themselves in their chosen field and the ones for whom waxing lyrical about the music they’re playing shouldn’t be that much of a tall order.

So, on that basis, the presenter shouldn’t really need to know anything. And if they do, they need to back off a bit. It’s not their moment. Presenter are not there for their knowledge. Presenters are on stage to keep things moving along.

Respect the players

To a certain extent, that’s all true. But if you’re standing on stage in the presence of professionals who have honed their skills over many many years and know far more than I do, preparing yourself (at the very least so you can avoid spluttering howlers) would be, at least, the respectful thing to do.

So I did just that. Did a bit of reading around about Monteverdi, listened to some archived radio programmes about Cavalli and drew up a playlist of repertoire, all to get me in the zone. The process was a bit like cramming for an exam, but it helped establish rapport with those performers and director Robert Howarth.

Once proceedings had got underway, the 45 minute concert followed a natural course. General introductions – a reasonably well-executed plan to make the audience feel welcome – followed by chit chat with director and the other musicians. All of this did, on the whole, see me asking the questions I was interested in and, I hope, questions I thought the audience might interested in too. A little bit of  a laugh in places – notably poking gentle fun at a musician who seemed unable to keep his music on his stand – and before I knew it, the gig was over. All too short.

I love the experience. I love the fact that it can at first seem incredibly daunting, respect the fact that I will feel slightly nauseous just before things get underway, and will delight in those magic unrehearsed moments will yield an insight or generate some laughter. All of that happened. Yay.

But, looking back on it twenty-four hours later, some other thoughts spring to mind. A mix of marketing considerations, and thoughts about audience consumption. All of what follows is considered in the context of the wider classical music world, not inside the bubble of or in reaction to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Obscure names put people off

Sometimes, seemingly obscure composers or terminology can, in a very low-level way, scare people off. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about that. At the same time, we shouldn’t start from the assumption that the audience doesn’t have the capacity or the desire to learn new stuff. As a classical music fan I know when I’ve had my fill or when I’m losing the plot a bit. I want the thing I love to be an immersive all encompassing experience for everyone.

At the same time, the classical music industry is obsessed by context. As listeners or consumers the first question we ask ourselves is ‘what period is this music from?’ and then make an assessment as to what the likelihood is we’ll like it. If I’m listening to pop music, I’ll never ponder what decade its from before I start listening. Why should classical music be any different?

Adopt a different listening strategy

When you take adopt a deliberately opposite listening strategy for new or unfamiliar music, then the result can be incredibly rewarding. Monteverdi’s music (in particular, that which I was introduced to as a result of this concert) has an indescribable effect on me at an emotional level.

When we chatted before the concert, Robert went some way to reflect that when he explained how he felt when he was first introduced to Monteverdi’s music. There is a physical sensation linked to the emotional response which is as unusual as it is difficult to describe. I experienced it during the OAE’s rehearsals earlier in the evening, especially when the voices started to sing. There is a quality to the tone which is refreshing and nourishing. And I defy anyone to not feel nourished by the sound of a glorious amen, Monteverdi-style. It makes no difference to me when that music was written. Should it really matter to anyone else?

Live performance is where its at

But perhaps most powerfully for me was the reminder that even the best recordings of music don’t convey the magic of the composer’s art. Like no other I’ve listened to, Monteverdi commitment to making his music inhabit the text he’s using (rather than the other way around) gives a remarkable authenticity to the finished product. Regardless of whether you understand what’s being sung or not, you are hearing the human soul when you hear voices sing Monteverdi’s music. That is the only way I can describe what was for me, a revelation. The only way to experience that is with an open mind at a live performance.

But you’d probably benefit from something equally potent if you’re being introduced to classical music for the first time. You need someone who has passion and who can communicate that passion (as opposed to a string of dull facts about a composer – that’s different and that’s valueless). I reckoned I saw an illustration of joy Monteverdi’s music offers in the face of Robert Howarth both before and during the concert. If you’re going to be introduced to something, have a passionate advocate do it for you. If the music resonates then it will stay with you forever.

Not only that, I reckoned I saw it reflected in the faces of the audience last night (only a presenter really gets to stare at the audience during a concert – the musicians and the conductor certainly can’t, or shouldn’t). Everyone was fixed on the platform during the performances. And as a fan of classical music there is no greater sight in an auditorium than seeing an audience transfixed.

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