It’s 1986. For some ten years there has existed a largely London-based core of players of baroque instruments who have played for bands run by gifted, motivated pioneers in the field of period-style performance practice. People like Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock, Sir Roger Norrington. With bands like the Academy of Ancient Music and the English Concert they’ve transformed music-making. We’re no longer over-reverential with our Bach or Mozart but find in them new colours, new expressivity, new energies.
And then a revolution. A group of players decides that if the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra can be self-governing, so can an orchestra of period instruments. They settle on a name: the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. It’s a name that reflects both the period of much of the music they play – though later their boundaries extend to post-Enlightenment Verdi and Tchaikovsky – and to the ethos of discovery. There will be no single conductor. Instead, conductors or directors from violins or keyboards will be appointed on a concert-by-concert basis, and not necessarily on the basis of experience with period-style instruments.
The musicians’ ownership demands that the project succeeds. And it does. The OAE is quickly recognised as something special, its playing charged with a vibrancy and energy that comes from its entire body. Slowly but surely its commitment to raising its own standards takes period-style performance practice away from the fringes of music-making, placing it instead at the heart of the musical world.
More than two decades later, the OAE, under its Chief Executive, Stephen Carpenter, flourishes, now regarded as one of the great orchestras of the world. Still there’s no single Principal Conductor or Music Director. Instead six conductors who have been particularly influential in the Orchestra’s development are acknowledged with titles. Iván Fisher, Vladimir Jurowski and Sir Simon Rattle are Principal Artists. Frans Bruggen, Sir Roger Norrington, and the perennially youthful and adventurous Sir Charles Mackerras are Conductors Emeritus. The leadership, too, has never been a post occupied by a single musician. Today it’s shared between four violinists, Alison Bury, Matthew Truscott, Kati Debretzeni and Margaret Faultless.
The Orchestra’s workload is more diverse than ever. It’s a Resident Orchestra at London’s Southbank Centre and Associate Orchestra at Glyndebourne (where it first played in 1989), and now also plays regularly at its new headquarters, the handsome concert-hall complex at King’s Place, situated near London’s St Pancras International Station. It continues to enjoy a residency across the South West of England. And such is its international reputation that regular tours to Europe and beyond are now de rigeur. In 2008-2009 alone the schedule takes the Orchestra to Brussels, Vienna, Madrid, Valencia, Baden-Baden, Paris (twice), Cologne, Gent, Hamburg, cities in Holland, and for a short residency to Minnesota, USA.
Part of the OAE’s secret is its refusal to be complacent with its lot, and now a three-layered, player-initiated programme called ‘OAE Futures’ is in place in order to keep the momentum going. Future Orchestra is all about innovative programming, such as the staging in the 2007-2008 season of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas with marionettes or the ‘Revealing Tchaikovsky’ festival this season. Future Performers offers opportunity and mentoring to new players and conductors. And Future Audiences embraces outreach work in schools and community as well as exciting innovations like the continuing Night Shift series of informal late night concerts, nominated for the Royal Philharmonic Society Audience Development Award, which has successfully attracted new, young audiences.
All this, plus a long, distinguished list of recordings ensure that the OAE continues to thrill audiences of all ages and levels of experience with its playing: dynamic, refined, and above all, always characterful.