Wednesday, May 26, 2010

European Union Baroque Orchestra concert

26 May 2010

Before I start to praise the wonderful concert by the European Union Baroque Orchestra, which we were at St John’s, Smith Square, in London to see last Saturday, I should declare an interest. Our good friend Lindsay Kemp is the Artistic Director of the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music and had programmed this concert as the finale to the 2010 festival. And it was wonderful. Regular readers may have deduced that baroque music is not one of my usual enthusiasms but I was enthralled by this look at the concerti grossi by Arcangelo Corelli. It helped to have attended a recording of BBC Radio 3’s ‘Discovering Music’ in the afternoon at which Stephen Johnson explained and analysed the three main works to be performed that evening, with the European Union Baroque Orchestra on hand to provide excerpts and examples. The concerto grosso was developed in Rome in the late 17th century, and employs a small chamber ensemble (the concertino) contrasted with a full string orchestra (the ripieno). Corelli pioneered this form of music with his twelve published concerti grossi – three of which were the focus of Saturday’s concert. At the time he was writing them, it was unusual to expect an audience to listen to purely instrumental music that had neither words for singers nor a clear story to follow and most composers assumed that the attention span for such works was likely to be no more than five or six minutes. Corelli boldly stretched this duration by introducing recurring motifs to create a subtle impression of familiarity, even when listening for the first time. He also expanded the size of the orchestra, on at least one occasion using 76 string players. For Saturday’s concert the European Union Baroque Orchestra was augmented by a number of its former members so that there were around 50 people on the stage – what now seems like a massive number of players for a baroque performance. The EUBO draws together the best young baroque musicians from across Europe each year, with the majority of its alumni going on to perform professionally. On Saturday they were directed from the violin by the charismatic Italian soloist, Enrico Onofri, a fascinating figure on the stage – gangly and hairless, save for his dark, hooded eyebrows, dressed entirely in black but with a bright white scarf laced through the end of his violin and tied around his neck to support the instrument. Constantly moving to the music, nodding his head and, occasionally leaping in the air to push the young players forward, Onofri was a perfect example of the violin soloist as ‘rock star’ – perhaps suggesting the effect Corelli himself had in this role. At the time Corelli was writing, the violin was a relatively new instrument: the concept of the virtuoso violin soloist as the star, accompanied by an orchestra, was still being developed by Vivaldi and others. Most of Corelli’s concerti grossi feature a concertino with two violins and a ‘cello – the violins (here played by Onofri and Margaret Faultless) answering each other in a constant conversation. But Onofri undoubtedly stole the show. The enhanced EUBO created a marvellous sound and showed how exciting this early orchestral music is. A packed St John’s, Smith Square, was thrilled by the performance and the two encores that followed. It was a great concert.

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