Academy of Ancient Music: The Bach Family

The Bach Family
Academy of Ancient Music, Lucy Crowe, Reinhard Goebel
Barbican. 18 June 2016

Unfortunately this concert will be remembered by me because, not for the first time, I found the behaviour of conductor Reinhard Goebel disturbing, both on and off stage. This started with his pre-concert talk, an event he totally dominated, arriving with his hands fumbling all over the hapless female AAM communications manager before announcing himself, and then suggesting that his much-handled companion also announce him. She then managed to ask one very simple question, which led to a rambling, incoherent, and often incorrect 30 minute monologue on practically anything but the question asked. For some reason, that probably didn’t reduce his ego, there was only one chair provided, meaning that the unfortunate communication manager ended up sitting at his feet on the floor at the edge of the dais. Amongst Goebel’s more alarming contentions was that Bach didn’t compose anything in the last two decades of his life, an extraordinary error that he only partially reined back on later in his talk. He also described Bach as a ‘nasty person’ who ‘hated the world’.

In the concert itself, Goebel pranced onto the stage clad in a clownish bright red cummerbund and matching bow tie and, bizarrely, carrying two batons. The only other time I have had the misfortune to see him conduct, he managed to throw one baton away in one of his extravagant gestures (nearly hitting a cellist in the process) so, rather than learning how to conduct, he now comes prepared with two batons.

His rather curious programme consisted of three Sinfonias, by CPE, WF and JCF Bach, that Goebal managed to make all sound the same with his unsubtle concentration on speed and relentless bombast. Goebel’s (presumably self-written) CV states that he is “aware of the anachronistic nature of ‘conducting’ music that was originally directed from the continuo or violin” and as a result has apparently developed “an autonomy within each ensemble in rehearsal largely independent of the baton.”. He goes on to refer to this as the “Goebel Experiment”. Well this ‘experiment’ seemed to be on hold this evening, as he totally dominated the orchestra with his over-excitable gestures and rather aggressive use of the baton. Mercifully, hardly any of the instrumentalists even cast him the occasional glance, playing on automatic pilot but, not surprisingly, with little or no real involvement in the music they were playing. Goebel had no interaction with the players, apart from putting his hand on the shoulder of one of the young female violinists every time he entered the stage.

Lucy Crowe Photograph: © Harmonia Mundi USA Marco BorgreveThe highlight of the evening was the exquisite singing of soprano Lucy Crowe in WF Bach’s 1750 arrangement of his father’s Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen and JC Bach’s 1773 La Tempesta, both sung beautifully despite the circumstances. Goebel completely ignored her, seemingly immune to any musical considerations that Lucy Crowe attempted to bring to the party, pushing the pace relentlessly until the alarmingly large concluding rallentandos. As with the rest of the evening’s music, he encouraged the instrumentalists to play loudly, frequently drowning out Lucy Crowe’s excellent singing. In the WF/JS Bach, the first violin also dominated the second violin in the concluding choral, despite the writing being very clearly intended for two equal instruments. I am not convinced that WF Bach’s addition of a second trumpet and timpani was worth the effort, but it brought yet another bit of appalling behaviour from Goebel when, during the final applause, he completely failed to even acknowledge the presence of the trumpet soloist, the ever-excellent David Blackadder, ignoring Lucy Crowe’s own attempts to do so.

The concluding La Tempesta was the highlight of the evening, a mini-opera that Lucy Crowe brought to life, revealing the compositional talents of the ‘English Bach’. But this wasn’t the end of Reinhard Goebel’s disgraceful behaviour. As he had done at the interval, every time Lucy Crowe left the stage, he would bustle along behind her, trying to catch her up so that he could leave the stage first, nearly stepping on her dress and usually managing to overtake her just as she reached the top of the stage stairs. Rather than giving him the slap he deserved, Lucy Crowe managed to make light of this ill-mannered behaviour, grinning to the audience and miming herself falling down the stairs, as she could so easily have done so. On his return to the stage, Goebel would again manage a quick grasp or a whisper in the ear of the young female violinists who were unfortunate enough to be seated on the outside of their desks. Other orchestras who have the misfortune to be appearing with Goebel should ensure that only men are positioned on the outside seats.

Fortunately for the reputation of the usually excellent Academy of Ancient Music, the audience was noticeably sparse.

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