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In Review: Candle Light Baroque with the Lancashire Sinfonietta

John Freeman
It has been a quarter of century since the CD was unleashed onto the world and what a difference it has made. No longer does the music lover need to stand up to change the record halfway through a symphony. No longer are delicate moments disrupted by crackling and hissing. No longer does one have to journey to a concert venue to enjoy Classical music, as one can stay at home and listen to concertos and sonatas at concert level over the headphones.

But now and again, it's still nice to go to a Classical concert even if it is just for the atmosphere, for they have a reverential festive atmosphere which can be highly satisfying.

I expected to visit such an event on 12th December 2008 at St. Peter’s Cathedral where the Lancashire Sinfonietta under the direction of Terence Charlston (harpsichord) performed Purcell’s Chaconne from King Arthur, Vivladi's Winter (the fourth part of Vivaldi’s cycle of concerti, known as the Four Seasons, Violin Concerto in F minor), the overture to Bach’s Suite No 1 in C major, Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord & Strings in D major and his Concerto for Oboe, Violin & Strings in D minor and finally Händel’s Concerto Grosso in B flat major.

The evening started with Lancaster’s bishop Patrick O’Donoghue accepting a Marque of Excellence for Lancaster Cathedral presented by Malcom Stonestreet, Chair of the North West Multi-Faith Tourism Association, and Mike Wilkinson, Chief Executive of the Lancashire and Blackpool Tourist Board, for services to the arts. After the usual self-congratulatory speeches and applause, came the music.

The evening had been billed as ‘Candle Light Baroque’. What I saw were some candles in front of the altar (the performers had desk lamps lightening up their scores), a few candles in some alcoves along the walls and a not inconsiderably large amount of artificial light radiating from both the front and the back of the cathedral. It must have been a true candle light evening for those members of the audience wearing sunglasses but not for the rest of us. Now that I think about it: did the billing of the evening contravene the trade’s description act?

But what amused me most was the audience. The concert took place in the main part of the cathedral – you know, the bit where people do the whole worshipping thing – but the atmosphere was one of a crypt. Deadly silence with only polite clapping in-between. Clearly Lancaster’s ‘crème de la crème’ had come out for an event where one had to be seen… and not much else. Furthermore, I have been to concerts - such as Phillip Fawcett’s performance the previous week - where the audience has been older but far more enthusiastic. I have been to concerts at Old People’s Homes where the excitement of a little bit of chamber music could be felt in the air. I have been to wakes where the deceased showed a larger zest for life.

And the music? Charslton’s harpsichord playing during Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord & Strings in D major was as good as anything Glenn Gould did on piano, Rachael Clegg on oboe was pretty skilful and Sarah Branchwood Spencer performance on her mid-18th Century Milanese violin was excellent - when one was able to hear it, as the fairly large string section more often then not drowned out the other instruments. Still, when the performance was excellent, which was most of the time, the sound was warm and crystal clear and…

Okay, both the strength and the weakness of the Lancashire Sinfonietta is that it is an ensemble that draws from various excellent orchestras – but the members are guest performers, so there is never time to establish a coherent assembly with its own sound. Yes, it has produced some excellent CDs but if there is no chemistry between the members at one given time there is no way this can be rectified

The evening ended with a brief encore: a well executed Händel larghetto completely taken out of context. It was also the only piece that the living dead truly applauded, as they were probably glad that the whole thing was over and they could return to their coffins.

Ever heard of the concert that sometimes sounded like a CD and sometimes like a badly mixed tape being performed in a tomb?

Regrettably, I have.

Review by Humble Sam
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