Ripping up the early music rulebook

Musica Poetica perform in Bath

This August saw the first full-length outing of Baroque Tales at Bath’s historic Old Theatre Royal. Musica Poetica’s Kate Conway (viola da gamba) gives a performer’s perspective on this hugely successful event which shrugs off any preconceptions of unapproachable concerts and stuffy venues…

Early Music often suffers from a slightly staid image, yet Musica Poetica’s Baroque Tales – an evening of baroque music combined with cocktails and canapés – turns the traditional concert format on its head, presenting music from the 17th and 18th centuries in a manner more akin to a jazz club night.

As performers, this presents a number of interesting questions. How should we enter the stage? Should there even be a stage? How should we address the audience? What should we wear? Should we bow? Shouldn’t we bow?

Through music college and beyond, we’ve been trained to follow the rules of the concert hall, and to stick to them to the letter. But in this setting, the rules are much more fuzzy. In fact, slightly scarily (at first), there are no real rules at all.

We were fortunate that Saturday’s venue was the Old Theatre Royal in Bath, with its atmospheric auditorium and conveniently-located bar (on the approach to the hall for optimum cocktail distribution). We were also able to perform in the round on the arena floor, with the audience almost able to read over our shoulders.

The crowd in Bath

The crowd in Bath

While the instrumentalists needed to remain fairly static, singers Gwendolen Martin and Christopher Webb were able to move freely around the auditorium walking amongst the audience and spontaneously responding to the music as they were performing.

One of the key aims of Baroque Tales is to remove barriers between those performing and those listening, so that the music becomes more immediate and inclusive. Consequently, the musicians talk to the audience throughout, and we’re very keen for the audience to talk to us too!

During the interval, we mingled with the capacity crowd over drinks. Interestingly, a large proportion were not regular concert-goers or early music fans (yet!). Also, the demographic was more wide-ranging than at many ‘standard’ performances.

Many people had been attracted by the combination of cocktails and music, and by the unusual venue, choosing Baroque Tales as ‘something different’ for a Saturday evening.

 The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. We were particularly delighted by the number of early music ‘first timers’ keen to find out about further concerts.

When putting together the concept and programme for Baroque Tales, we were adamant that the music shouldn’t be compromised as a result of the format. Musically, the only real difference from a ‘regular’ concert is that each item is kept relatively short, with a pick ‘n’ mix selection of composers, national styles and instrumentation.

Kate Conway

Kate Conway

The famous Rejoice greatly from Handel’s Messiah, for example, is juxtaposed with lesser-known works such as the gorgeous An Wasserflüssen Babylon by Franz Tunder – one of our favourite discoveries from our Tunder series. And the delicate French nuances of Rameau and Clérambault are contrasted with Biber’s pictorial and brash Sonata Representiva, and again with Leveridge’s bawdy Comic Songs, which wouldn’t be out of place in a modern pub!

These pieces were originally written to be played in a huge variety of venues, from church to theatre to drawing room, but the one backdrop that few of the composers could have envisaged was the modern purpose-built concert hall, with its rules, regulations and conventions. Sometimes, this setting can inadvertently create an unwelcoming atmosphere, and act as a barrier to the transmission of the music that we’re so passionate about.

With Baroque Tales, Musica Poetica is trying to redress the balance, and to rip up the rulebook. By all accounts, that rulebook never really existed anyway!

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