European Union Baroque Orchestra
Maria Keohane, Lars Ulrik Martensen
London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square. 19 May 2017
One of the key events of the London Festival of Baroque Music was final concert of the current incarnation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra, and orchestra I have been reviewing enthusiastically for many years. After extensive annual training auditions attracting around 100 applicants, aided by leading period performers, around 30 instrumentalists are selected each year to tour a series of concerts around Europe. But this concert was also, very sadly, the very last EUBO concert in its present state as a UK-managed organisation. Founded 32 years ago as a UK initiative (during the 1985 European Music Year), and managed ever since from its base near Oxford, the vote by a small percentage of the UK population to drag the UK out of the European Union means that it is no longer viable to run an EU venture from the UK. In its 32 years, EUBO has encouraged and nurtured around 1000 young musicians, giving some of the finest period instrumentalists around an early grounding in performance practice at the start of their careers. For the future, after a hiatus of a year to allow for the transfer, when there will be no auditions or orchestra , EUBO will restart from a new base, and with new management, based in the music centre AMUZ in Antwerp.
For this final concert, EUBO focussed on instrumental and vocal music by the two greatest composers of the High Baroque, Handel and Bach. The opening Concerto Grosso in d (Op.6/10) was a test of the extraordinary talents of the young musicians, the crisp opening flourishes played with precise rhythmic flair. Their concertmaster, Bojan Čičić (a former member of EUBO), violinist Charlotte Mercier, and cellist Alex Jellici bought clarity to the trio sections.
They were then joined by Swedish soprano Maria Keohane, a regular soloist with EUBO over the years, for two dramatic pieces from Handel. The cantata Tu fedel? Tu costante was performed in an early version (HWV 171a) that might have pre-dated his trip to Italy. All but the first aria is different from the well-known ‘Ruspoli’ version, notably in using a solo oboe, on this occasion played by Neven Lesage. He appeared as the key soloist in all three of the evening’s vocal numbers, and it was entirely appropriate that he arrived and left the stage as a joint soloist with Maria Keohane. His playing was outstanding, demonstrating a sensitive understanding of Baroque melodic lines, and an excellent ability to work with the soprano soloist, notably in their excellently coordinated trill at the end of the aria Se non ti piace amarmi.
Handel’s Passacaille in g (from Op. 5/4) segued into Ah! Ruggiero crudel / Ombre pallide from Alcina, and another demonstration of high-octane revenge singing from Maria Keohane. She arrived on stage through the audience as though she were about to interrupt the orchestra to continue her earlier rant about cruel men. This is one of Handel’s most dramatic pieces, the opening recitative depicting practically every emotion possible, climaxing in the extraordinary sequence of outbursts at Vi cerco, e vi ascondete? This was one of the finest performances that I have heard from Maria Keohane, notably because of her sense of dramatic timing and the purity and clarity of her voice.
After a first half emoting about unfaithful lovers, our protagonist seems to have struck lucky, as evidenced by the concluding Bach ‘Wedding Cantata’ Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten. Again accompanied by oboist Neven Lesage, Maria Keohane here demonstrated a more jovial mood, making the best of the rather silly text. Her first utterance emerged almost imperceptibly from the plangeant tone of the oboe. As well as additional solo moments from Bojan Čičić, bassoonist Dóra Király also made her presence felt in the jolly aria Sich úben in Lieben, as she also had in an earlier important moment. It says something for the ability of these musicians that I realised that I had already praised her contribution to a Rameau opera I heard in Budapest earlier this year.
The Wedding Cantata was preceded by Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in A (BWV 202), with Lars Ulrik Martensen, the long-time Music Director of EUBO, as the eloquent soloist. Using the full string forces of EUBO (5/4/3/2/1) meant that the harpsichord risked being overpowered, but the EUBO players managed to keep the volume down enough for us to hear the almost continuous movement from the harpsichord. The lovely Larghetto was particularly sensitively played.
Just before the Wedding Cantata, Lars Ulrik Martensen gave a very moving speech. Relating the Wedding Cantata’s celebration of union to the UK’s departure from the European Union, he also noted in particular the contribution to EUBO of the two people who have headed up the organisation from the very start, Paul James and Emma Wilkinson. Two members of the orchestra presented them with gifts. Is says something for the sheer professionalism of the young musicians that, despite the heightened emotions of the occasion, they managed to continue to play to such a high standard. Many in the audience were in tears.
Not surprisingly, the heartfelt concluding applause was long and loud, the entire audience standing in support of the young musicians and the UK’s contribution to the success of EUBO. From its start, the EUBO patron has been HRH The Duke of Kent, cousin of The Queen. As on many other occasions, he was present for this event. The final utterance of EUBO as a UK run orchestra came with their encore, the aria Tu del ciel from Handel’s Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno. The slow heartbeat pulse was overlain by a beautiful violin solo from Bojan Čičić and more exquisite singing from Maria Keohane. As the young EUBO players now return to their home or study countries and prepare for their future careers, the rest of us were left wondering just what havoc is in store for music and the arts with the UK’s departure from the European Union.