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Charivari Agreable Summer Festival 2007

Early Music By Candlelight in beautiful surroundings.
Exeter College Chapel, between 27th June and 24th August 2007

See concert listings or Charivari website for further details.

July 15, 2007
Jefferson’s Passion: Correspondence & Composers from Jefferson’s Library
15th July, repeated 22nd July, 5th August 2007

The concert I’m going to review is, hopefully, not the concert that you’ll be attending on its repeat performance. The group’s soprano being ill, there was nobody to give the expected readings of Jefferson’s correspondence. As a result this was a purely instrumental performance. Kah-Ming Ng at the harpsichord was accompanied by violinists Richard Wade and Lara James; the latter hastily called up while recovering from a pretty extensive tour.

It’s a testament to Charivari Agreable’s skill, flexibility and repertoire that they managed to throw together almost literally at the last minute (the soprano had called at half past nine that morning) a programme that was, for the most part, interesting and varied. They’d even found time to print out an updated programme. Slightly less impressive was the attempt to stick, somewhat loosely, to the Jeffersonian theme. Bravely stepping up to the plate to give a little of the anticipated context, Ng and Wade cheerfully explained that the first American president would almost certainly have played the pieces we were hearing. Or at least have known about them. Or almost certainly have visited a country that the composer of the pieces had also visited at roughly the same time.

The intriguing thing about the programme was the time it spanned – mirroring Jefferson’s life it sat across the Baroque and Classical periods, making the point that the boundary between these two is – like any artistic period defined after the fact – somewhat fuzzy. The opening trio sonata by William Boyce was written in 1747 but could have come from much earlier, while earlier sonatas by Corelli displayed stylistic innovations that anticipated their successors.

The only misstep came with the inclusion of a very early Mozart Sonata – number 4 in E minor. Written when the composer was being touted about Europe as a child prodigy, this is not one of his better works. In fact it’s rather dull and repetitive, and while an extract would have made as interesting a bagatelle as the short violin duet that preceded it, the full-length version took up far more of the second half than its quality warranted.

Overall however this was, as usual, carefully selected, cerebral and entertaining stuff. Even without the full Jefferson readings it served as an entertaining reminder that the founders of America were intellectuals of their era, fully engaged with the cultural as well as the philosophical currents of the European enlightenment.

July 8, 2007
The Queen’s Revels
6th July, repeated 13th & 24th July, 15th August 2007

Lit by candles, playing in a space that was slightly too large for what they seemed to have in mind, Charivari Agreable offered a short and intimate programme of readings and pieces from Elizabethan England.

Despite the title of the concert, there didn’t seem to be much revelling – a large proportion of the pieces were quite lugubrious, accompanied by a melancholy selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets dealing mostly with love, loss and betrayal. Isobel Collyer’s readings were skilled and thoughtful, bringing out the hidden ironies in poems that purported to be about love, but were full of hidden resentment.

This was mirrored in some strange, sad music – most notably Tobias Hume’s multi-textured Death & Life, its unnerving shifts of tone given their full force by violist Susanne Heinrich. The interaction between readings and pieces was carefully considered; what could have been a novelty trifle, the anonymous The Scottish Hunt’s Up was made almost sinister by its placing after Edmund Spenser’s thinly veiled account of the trial of Mary Queen of Scots. Putting Corkine and Gibbon’s intriguingly-titled Whoope, doe me no harme good man after a furious poem written by Walter Raleigh upon his imprisonment seemed to impart a certain sneering visciousness to an otherwise ordinary ballad.

The choice to render the pieces on just Virginal and Viol conflicted with the echoes inevitable in such a large, hollow space. Even the few upbeat numbers were rendered a little syrupy – both Heinrich’s extraordinary act of musical mimicry in Francis Withy’s Trumpet Tune and Kah-Ming Ng’s solo virtuosity on John Bull’s The King’s Hunt were both blunted a little by this problem, although in both cases their energy lifted the proceedings from their generally downbeat mood.

After a series of pieces most notable for their obscurity, the small ensemble ended by playing to the crowd with Collyer’s rendition of Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…), followed by Greensleeves. The latter was given a fascinating new angle, with the viol and virginals passing elaborate trills and runs between each other, fluttering around the well-known tune while never actually settling on it.

It’s often the case that early music concerts, particularly those with a programme as obscure and varied as this one, can be rather scholarly and dry. Collyer, Heinrich and Ng managed to avoid that trap and bring out the passions behind every piece.

July 7, 2007
Trios and Tangos
8th July, repeated 14th August 2007
Exeter College Chapel is a wonderful setting for an evening of exquisite music by Charivari Agréable (‘pleasant tumult’). Tangos and Trios is part of a series of performances entitled Early Music by Candlelight taking place throughout July and August in the chapel.

Formed in 1993 at Oxford University, Charivari Agréable consists of two people, Kah-Ming Ng and Susanne Heinrich, who, in their own words, delight in working with other people (they regularly expand into Oxford’s resident period-instrument orchestra, Charivari Agréable Simfonie). They are joined by other instrumentalists and vocalists during this series but, for Trios and Tangos, they perform alone. Kah-Ming Ng plays the harpsichord, a richly decorated instrument which is a ‘Frenchified’ copy of Ruckers harpsichord, and Susanne Heinrich plays the viola da gamba and quinton or pardessus de viole. This latter instrument looks like a 5-string violin but is played in front of the body, not on the shoulder, and was apparently invented in the 1730s for ladies to play. It did not prove popular and only lasted about 30 years before falling out of fashion again.

Tangos and Trios is subtitled ‘Passionate Music from Two Different Worlds’ and this is one of the fascinations of Charivari’s music. There are 3 lovely sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach and, interspersed with them, 3 pieces by Astor Piazzolla and a delicate lullaby by Harvey Brough specially written for Susanne Heinrich which she performs alone. The Piazzolla pieces are astonishing. Piazzolla was an Argentinian living in the 20th century (he died 15 years ago) who composed a distinctive brand of tango called ‘nuevo tango’ and to hear this music arranged for harpsichord and quinton was a delight. More please!

Exeter College chapel is not old by Oxford standards (it was consecrated in 1859) but it is in the style of the Gothic architecture which prevailed when the college was founded in the 14th century and it was designed on a grand scale. One of the many pleasures of the evening is to sit back in your choir stall and survey the magnificent interior of this chapel - the stained glass windows; the William Morris tapestry based on a design by Burne-Jones, both old members of the college; the wood and stone carving - while the glorious music fills your ears and mind.

The concert left me wanting to know and see more of Charivari Agréable.
FANDANGO! Songs & Dances from Felipe II to Felipe V
10th June, repeated 7th & 17th of August

Fandango! was a very beautiful concert by the baroque group Charivari Agréable, performed in Exeter Chapel, amidst the dripping candles, dim chandeliers and gilded walls.

The hauntingly beautiful vocals of soprano Clara Sanabras mixed with the sounds of the guitar, harpsichord, harp, treble and bass viols (the talented Kah-Ming Ng, Joy Smith and Susanne Heinrich respectively) for a series of pieces from the Baroque period through to the Golden Age of early Spanish music. They are all award winning performers, and were flawless in their performance (at least from my layman’s perspective).

The performance included a mix of instrumental and vocal pieces, featuring several different configurations of the musicians. The sound was distinctively ‘early music’, yet carried real warmth to the sound.

Kah-Ming Ng brought a real light heartedness and ease of professionalism, as he introduced the pieces with flair, poking fun at the occasional topic or title of the pieces – such as the moral of one, which was that one should not flirt with three Moorish girls at once, but rather choose only one to fancy. He also offered insight into some of the technical components of the pieces.

Fandango! is a wonderful foray into early music, by an award-winning instrumental ensemble. The performance attracted a range of residents and tourists, many of whom were heard to remark how fortunate they had been to come across it.

The next performances of Fandango! are on the 7th and 17th of August, though they are part of a larger summer festival by Charivari Agréable that features a number of performances on a weekly basis.
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