Enlightenment and a rare sighting from orchestra

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. ''Chi-chi Nwanoku is pictured top left
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. ''Chi-chi Nwanoku is pictured top left

CHI-CHI Nwanoku is back in town next Thursday when the world-famous Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment appears at the City Hall in the Sheffield International Concert Season.

There will also be a rare sighting of a contrabass ophicleide.

Memories need to go back almost 30 years to remember Chi-chi at the second and third Sheffield Chamber Music Festival – now Music in the Round’s May Festival – in 1985 and 1986.

In those days, fresh from the Royal Academy of Music, she was the ebullient 22-year-old double bass player who played Schubert and Mozart with the Lindsay String Quartet.

Born in London of Nigerian-Irish parentage, she has come a long way since, to the extent of being awarded an MBE in 2001 for services to music.

Principal double bass of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Chi-chi is probably best known from her media activity, chiefly as a regular presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Requests programme.

She was a founding member of the orchestra in 1986, its cumbersome name acknowledged by the fact that even they more often than not refer to themselves as the OAE.

And they have a clever motto: Sounds Original, Period.

They are a period instrument orchestra variously playing on original instruments or modern copies with the avowed aim of recreating the music’s sound in the period it was first heard.

A general consensus now is that the philosophy behind period instrument, or historically informed performance, which these days extends to Mahler, has changed the way that music is performed with the gap between it and modern-instrument performance getting ever narrower.

At the forefront of the boundary shrinking has been the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with its period-specific instruments.

It was founded in 1986 by period instrument players who were getting weary of dashing from one period instrument orchestra or group to the next to play Bach, Handel or Mozart.

There had to be more to life they thought, so they formed a player-led and self-governing orchestra, the OAE, for which they would call the artistic shots.

They would not have a music director, instead they would invite a conductor deemed suitable – and willing! – for the duties according to the project they planned to undertake.

Its early days were financially precarious, the orchestra’s acknowledged break though undertaking in 1987 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Mozart’s Idomeneo conducted by Simon Rattle, having been on the verge of cancellation due to lack of funds.

The fiscal storms were slowly weathered – royalties from over 50 recordings from Purcell to Verdi in highly distinguished company will have helped – and it now has a pre-eminent place among the world’s ever-increasing period instrument bands.

It has a large education programme, is in demand all over the world and in 2006 started The Night Shift, a highly successful series of informal late-night concerts designed to loosen the shackles of formal concert-going.

A hugely impressive roster of conductors have worked with the orchestra, including their early champion Rattle (they are the only British orchestra he now conducts with any regularity), whose latest work with them was Act Two of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and the Love Scene from Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet at last year’s BBC Proms.

The late Charles Mackerras was another regular and Mark Elder’s activity with them is increasing, while Roger Norrington and Franz Brüggen have the title emeritus conductor.

Other more readily recognisable period music specialists include Christopher Hogwood, Philippe Herreweghe, Gustav Leonardt, Renè Jacobs and Sigiswald Kuijken.

A run-down the OAE’s list of principal players is enlightening.

It includes some of busiest and best-known period instrument players in the country, including four violinists who rotate leadership of the orchestra, three of who will be on duty in Sheffield: Matthew Truscott, Alison Bury and Kati Debretzeni.

The latter, it may be recalled, was a member of Trevor Pinnock’s European Brandenburg Ensemble when he recorded the Bach Brandenburg Concertos at the City Hall in December 2006.

Also present will be three orchestra principals who are top-flight international soloists in their own right – flautist Lisa Beznosiuk, oboist Anthony Robson and Antony Pay, who has to be here as he’s the soloist in Weber’s First Clarinet Concerto.

Others are co-principal viola player Jan Schlapp, co-principal horn players Andrew Clark and Roger Montgomery, co-principal timpanist Adrian Bending, bassoon principal Andrew Watts and trumpet principal David Blackadder, whose playing was grafted on to Pinnock’s Bach Brandenburgs.

And after two concerts with young talent to the fore, we have a soloist, Pay, who made his name playing modern clarinet and a celebrated American conductor, David Zinman, with countless years of experience between them.

Zinman is making his debut with the OAE on a four-concert tour, of which the Sheffield date is one; while tour itself is something a rarity as the orchestra rarely confines them solely to the UK.

Speaking of rarities: the contrabass ophicleide! The instrument is part of a now defunct family of brass instruments and was an 18th-century forerunner of the tuba and euphonium.

Only four of are known to exist with three residing in museums and one that is still played which is owned by a guy in New York and will be crossing the Atlantic for Anthony George to play on the OAE tour.