The Rough with the Smooth

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Kati Debretzeni, director & violin
Chi-Chi Nwanoku, double bass, Frances Kelly, harp, Elizabeth Kenny, theorbo
Queen Elizabeth Hall, 12 May 2015

Telemann: Overture (Suite) in B flat, TWV.55:B8 (Ouverture burlesque), Concerto in B flat for violin, TWV.51:B1,
Stevie Wishart: Concerto à double entendre (World premiere)
Handel: Concerto in B flat for violin & orchestra, HWV.288 (Sonata a 5), Concerto in B flat, Op.4 No.6 for lute & harp, Concerto grosso in G, Op.6 No.1

Nestling in between the familiar OAE territory of Telemann and Handel was the world premiere of Stevie Wishart’s The Rough with the Smooth: Concerto à double entendre. Lasting about 23 minutes, it was structurally based on the traditional form of the concerto grosso, the three-movements headed Prelude and Fugue, Air, and Passacaglia. So far, so Baroque. But Stevie Wishart is a composer with roots in early and contemporary music. So rather than highlighting the melodic aspects of the instruments that are usually key to Baroque music, Wishart focused on the “resonance, overtones and sympathetic vibration” of the string orchestra, commenting that “the entire orchestra play only open strings and harmonics so that melodies only surface through a barrage of ‘sound clouds’ and gentle noise.”

Musically (and geographically) central to the work was the OAE’s Principal Double Bass player, Chi-chi Nwanoku, positioned front centre-stage with the harp & theorbo (Frances Kelly & Elizabeth Kenny) and Steven Devine’s harpsichord behind her. This central concertanto group was contrasted with the rest of the orchestra (the Baroque ripieno) to either side. The leader, violinist Kati Debretzeni, also had a prominent solo role including, at one stage, holding a long-held note while walking wishart-curtain-callslowly from the front to behind the rear screen and back. The soloists and orchestra played with Soave (smooth) and Ruvido (rough) timbres and textures (using bows and plucks), creating an innovative dialogue that often seemed to switch in and out of phase. Much was asked of the players, not least in adopting the open-string and harmonic manner of playing.

Improvisation was another key feature (as it was in the Baroque) although without access to a score it was difficult to ascertain to what extent, or when, that happened. But whether composed by Stevie Wishart, or improvised on the spot by the players, the resulting sound world was a fascinating one. Starting with a series of isolated, rather ominous plucked notes, the musical texture built slowly, the percussive element of the harpsichord, theorbo and harp occasionally coming to the fore. Both violin and, notably, double bass had several moments of recitative and cadenza, the former featuring Kati Debretzeni bowing and plucking her violin at the same time.

Back in more usual OAE-land, pieces by Telemann and Handel reinforced the Rough and Smooth theme. After the opening of Telemann’s 1729 Ouverture burlesque (the Overture-Suite in B flat) the following movements reflected characters from the Commedia dell’arte, starting with a musical depiction of the rather lumpy Scaramouches. The seductive Colombine was positioned between her sprightly lover Harlequinade and her unfortunate husband, the clown Pierrot, the whole ending in a bit of a chase in the Mezzetin en Turc. Kati Debretzeni was the soloist in Telemann’s Violin Concerto in B flat (TWV.51:B1), with its touches of Vivaldi and several examples of the contrast between rough and smooth. After the Wishart premiere, an early Handel work (the c1707 Sonata à Cinque, HWV 288 – in effect a violin concerto) was contrasted with two works from the late 1730s, both published as organ concertos but here performed in their earlier incarnations as a Concerto for harp & lute (HWV 294) and the Concerto Grosso Op 6/1. The Concerto for harp & lute was reconstructed from the organ concerto and, unusually, added a largely improvised lute part.

As well as her contributions as solo violinist, leader Kati Debretzeni is also a most effective leader, showing just how a violinist would have led a Baroque orchestra before the days of conductors. She communicates and inspires with a series of body movements, facial expressions and glances and by the spirited nature of her own playing.

Despite this being hard work for the performers, they stayed to present one of the OAE Night Shift events. See my review of that above.

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