Handel and his London Colleagues
European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO)
Lars Ulrik Mortensen, director, Jan Van Hoecke, recorder
Royal Greenwich Early Music Festival
St Margaret’s, Lee Terrace, Blackheath. 22 November 2016
Galliard: Dances from Pan & Syrinx; Handel: Concerto Grosso Op 6/2; Babell: Recorder Concerto Op 3/1; Handel: Ballet music from Alcina; Sammartini: Recorder Concerto in F
Geminiani; Concerto Grosso Op 3/2; Handel: Water Music Suite No 3.
For most of my reviewing career, one of the musical highlights has been the visit of the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) to the UK. This extraordinary orchestra was founded in the UK in 1985, during European Music Year and the anniversaries of Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. Over the intervening 30 years or so, through their concerts and recordings, they have carved out an enviable reputation as an exciting orchestra whose professional and musical standards are always of the very highest. Many people listening to a EUBO concert for the first time are amazed to find out their unusual story. Not only is the orchestra made up of young post-graduate instrumentalists, broadly around the mid-20s age range, but every year the entire orchestra is disbanded, to be reformed the following year after a round of auditions.
Around 100 musicians attend one of two four-day residential training courses. All attendees gain from specialist training in their instrument as well as experience of playing in small groups and as an orchestra. From these courses,around 25 players are chosen to form that year’s EUBO. In various formulations of players, ranging from around 18 to 25, the then rehearse and tour around four programmes under a specialist conductor and an experienced professional concertmaster, the latter often a member of a previous incarnation of EUBO. Many ex-EUBO players go on to distinguished solo and orchestral careers. In my rounds of international reviewing, and I frequently see EUBO mentioned in the CVs of distinguished soloists.
Although for many years, particularly as Europe expanded, EUBO often only managed one or two visits to the UK each year, in recent years a three or four concert residency at St John’s, Smith Square has given them more of a focus in the country of their birth. But this event was given as part of the Royal Greenwich Early Music Festival, taking place this year up the hill in Blackheath. This was the last concert in the first of EUBO’s four 2017 tours, and had already been given in ten earlier concerts around Europe. It featured music by Handel and his London contemporaries, all born within 10 years of each other.
The Blackheath concert included two recorder concertos performed by Jan Van Hoecke, winner of several international prizes including the 2015 Telemann, the 2014 Musica Antiqua Competitions, and a EUBO Development Trust prize. Babell is renown for his use of ornaments, and adding them to other composers works, and this was very apparent in the central Adagio of his Opus 3/1 concerto. Jan Van Hoecke impressed me with his range of articulations, sense of musical line, use of appropriate cadenzas (in the Sammartini concerto) and superb, but modestly applied virtuosity. He joined the rest of the EUBO players for their final Water Music suite.
The other works were all for orchestra, without much opportunity for solo contributions from any of the players. But, as well as the concertmaster, Bojan Čičič, violinist Charlotte Mercier and cellist Alex Jellici had frequent and impressive contributions, as did bassoonist Marit Darlang, who was, I think, the only woodwind player to play throughout the evening. Although Lars Ulrik Mortensen’s harpsichord playering was by far the most prominent, the second harpsichord player, Julio Caballero Pérez was also an important part of the continuo team.
What has always impressed me with EUBO, in all its various annual formations, has been the sheer joy and dynamism of the young players. Just looking at the little glances and grins between them as they perform indicates the personal involvement of them all in the EUBO project. I hope they can continuo such enthusiasm into the longer term professional careers. Much of the spirit of the orchestra clearly stems from the infectious enthusiasm of their conductor for this tour, Lars Ulrik Mortensen (who is also the Musical Director of EUBO and its orchestral courses). Although his rather extravagant style of conducting does raise some grins and giggles from the orchestra and the audiences, his transmission of musical ideas through the medium of dance and gestures does seem to work in inspiring some magnificent performances, this one included.
In the past two years, the remit of EUBO has expanded enormously, as a result of their most recent EU funding round. The UK-based secretariat now administers a number of new initiatives, including the EUBO Mobile Baroque Academy which brings together a number of other European partners. Indeed, straight after this Blackheath concert, EUBO set of for Bucharest for one of the Academy sessions. The UK’s apparent recent wish to cut itself off from Europe obviously raises difficult future issues for EUBO and its UK base. It is essential that EUBO survives into the future, whether or not any young UK musician will be eligible to join. To this end, an imaginative fundraising initiative has been started under the banner of #EUBO1685.
On the issue of musical migration, it is worth noting that all but one of the composers in this concert were immigrants to London, and the one exception (Babell) was taught by immigrant musicians. Of the EUBO orchestra, every one of them could be considered immigrants; coming as they did from Spain, Poland, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, to work with a Croatian concertmaster, a Danish conductor and a recorder soloist from Belgium. Amongst those EUBO members not on the current tour were citizens of Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Long may that cooperation between cultures and countries continue, even if the UK ends up being less involved.
Photos edited down from originals by Noora Heiskanen of the EUBO secretariat.