London orchestra looks to past to make its future

Wed Dec 17, 2008 9:11am EST
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Conductor Simon Rattle calmly steps up to the podium in a London rehearsal hall and then unleashes pandemonium -- Berlioz style.

"Let's do Berlioz a bit for his wild ride," Rattle, onetime wunderkind of British conducting, now 53 and at the top of his game, said as he cued the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a rousing run-through of "Les Francs-Juges" -- the French Romantic composer's depiction of the Spanish Inquisition.

"Simon is very good at telling us that at this part it's where someone's vein gets cut open," Tony George, who plays a precursor of the tuba called the ophicleide -- which is what Berlioz scored his 1826 overture for -- said during a break.

"What you can do with this orchestra is really get to that imagery. So what you'll hear is pretty much what Berlioz heard, only better, because we can really play it.

"It's like Berlioz-plus."

That may sound boastful, but the track record of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, founded 22 years ago with the twin goals of playing on period instruments, like the ophicleide, and of not having a fixed musical director, pretty much mirrors the "wild ride" Berlioz conjures up.

"My husband Tim was one of the four who got together on a cold night and decided they were fed up, they wanted to have some say in whom they played for," said violist Jan Schlapp, whose husband Tim Mason, an OAE founder, died 11 years ago.

"I remember thinking this is an absolutely impractical idea, we'll never get this off the ground. But the spark was there and it's extraordinary how it's developed."   Continued...

<p>The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment practice at the Royal Festival Hall in central London May 29, 2007. REUTERS/Toby Melville</p>