The Roundhouse was packed to the rafters on Friday night. The young trendy crowd that gathered had come to hear Beethoven’s seventh symphony played on period instruments. It all sounds rather unlikely, testament to the success of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Night Shift series, which has become something of a phenomenon. The formula has achieved what for any arts organisation is the Holy Grail: a ‘ways in’ event that has built a genuinely youthful following.
The format for the Night Shift, which the orchestra has run since 2006, is sensibly, rather than radically, innovative. The orchestra presents a lighter, cheaper version of the more traditional concert performed earlier the same evening. Full works are still on offer, but the concert experience is re-packaged. Pieces are presented from the stage, punters are allowed to take in drinks and walk in and out; a generally relaxed atmosphere is encouraged. It recognises that young Londoners have very broad tastes when it comes to the arts but are put off by classical music, not by its inaccessability, but because of its formal setting and outmoded rituals.
Usually set in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Night Shift took a leap into the unknown this time round, performing as part of the Reverb Festival (which has focused on the cutting edge of the London classical music scene throughout January) at the famous Camden venue. The festival has included performances by the Britten Sinfonia with young composer du jour Nico Muhly and the London Contemporary Orchestra, and by all accounts has been a huge success, perhaps mirroring the recent vogue for presenting classical music in non-traditional settings. The Roundhouse itself isn’t new to classical music of course – it hosted late night Proms in the 1970s for example – but it certainly avoids the concert hall atmosphere.
It also lacks a concert hall acoustic. The OAE sometimes struggled to lift its sound, denting the immediacy of Jurowski’s electric reading of the Beethoven symphony, which followed the opening Coriolan Overture. Although the in-show dialogue from the presenter, Alistair Appleton, bordered on the excruciating at times, Jurowski, no geriatric himself, is clearly at home in the Night Shift setting. Speaking from the podium, he eloquently described the structure and mood of the symphony, especially in relation to the distinctive rhythm of the second movement, which he subsequently shaped beautifully, drawing powerfully melancholic playing from the OAE. Sadly, the most intimate moments of that profoundest of movements were upset by the clumping feet of a few thirsty audience members off to the bar. Although the quality of listening was very high on the whole, it is a pity that some took the concert’s informal licence rather too literally.
Nevertheless, some aural spillage was not enough to dent the obvious success of the night. Jurowski’s breakneck speed in the final movement was suitably exhilarating but finely controlled, and conductor and orchestra received a roar of approval for their efforts. The Night Shift powers on and one suspects that it is fast becoming the benchmark from which other such ventures are measured.
Click here for the Night Shift website. The next event is on 25 May 2010, back in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.