I thought subjecting two children, aged 10 and 11, to a whole evening of Handel might be a strain, that they would be bored and fidgety (perhaps I might be bored and fidgety – I don’t go to concerts that often). But I needn’t have worried. For a start there was plenty going on. Lots of incidental stuff – the lovely Wigmore Hall (air-conditioned), the audience of zanily dressed north London intelligentsia, the exhortations to suppress the urge to cough as much as possible, and the bags of Swiss-formula herbal sweets on sale in the interval. The hard seats.
And then there was the music. The Brook Street Band, celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, are a wonderful Baroque music group, bursting with energy. The Band are named after Handel’s address at No 25 where he lived from 1723 to 1759. (Jimi Hendrix had a briefer stay at 23 Brook Street. He redecorated the flat and, sensibly, bought his curtains and cushions from John Lewis.)
To begin with just the core players – the founder, cellist Tatty Theo, Baroque violinists Rachel Harris and Farran Scott, and Carolyn Gibley on harpsichord – played lively, small-scale pieces such as the Oxford Water Music suites and Trio Sonatas from Saul and Opus 5. Their faces beamed with pleasure and fulfilment in performance. Harris and Scott seemed to be duelling with their violins, Harris particularly animated, jabbing and shaking her head, relishing the music, driving on the others. Both the children – who play cello and violin themselves – found this interaction gripping to watch.
After the interval more people came on stage – oboes, flute, bassoon and two singers – for a cantata, Apollo e Dafne. It is full of “reheated” melodies that Handel had used in other pieces but felt needed another airing. Matthew Brook as towering Apollo, pursuing Nicki Kennedy’s dainty Dafne before she turns into a laurel tree, had a thunderous bass-baritone and delightfully rubbery facial features that went vividly through ecstasy, yearning, lust, anguish and desperation. At no stage did the concert drag.
It is hard to imagine a better introduction to serious music. (I noticed that every member of the group started playing at a young age and that all are passionately interested in education.) Alice (10) had been to one concert with me before, the annual Christmas show by the brilliant cello ensemble the Massive Violins at Cecil Sharp House, which had camp jokes and pop tunes and showed that playing music at the highest level can be cool. The Brook Street Band had the same effect. Nothing was inaccessible. The children got as much as they could out of it. They liked the music. It didn’t need gimmicks to make it palatable.
The other interesting thing I found was that the concert had an anti-depressant effect on me. Walking home in the balmy night as the children chattered away about which performers they liked best, I felt elated, and that better-than-well feeling lasted well into the next day. Like the “voice” of Sidney Bechet’s saxophone for Philip Larkin, the sounds of those Baroque instruments “fell as they say love should / Like an enormous yes”.
Cardinal Sarah caused some excitement two weeks ago by recommending that priests should celebrate Mass ad orientem instead of facing the people. Luckily for Catholics who live in large urban dioceses like Southwark and Westminster, there are parishes – such as the London Oratory – where this already happens, so people who want to can experience it.
Another post-Vatican II practice that you do not normally see at the Oratory is the offering each other of the Sign of Peace. In most parishes in Britain this friendly handshake-and-grin ritual – though it’s supposedly optional – has hardened into a cast-iron and immutable stage in the Mass. But not at Brompton Road. There the liturgy rolls seamlessly on from “The Peace of the Lord …” to “Lamb of God …” But for the vigil Mass last Saturday Fr Tom Ryan was visiting from the Columban Missionaries and this meant that, for the first time I can remember, the Sign of Peace was exchanged.
How would this shock break with convention go down with parishioners? We pressed moist palms (it was a hot and humid afternoon), even in some cases with enthusiasm, to the extent of turning round and covering the row behind, too. In other words, most grasped that it wasn’t all about them and got on with it – proving that Oratory parishioners’ reputation for resistance to change is exaggerated.
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph
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