Arts: A night to remember

What happens if you combine Ely Cathedral, Simon Rattle, two first- rate orchestras, Haydn, Beethoven and Mark-Anthony Turnage? The BBC Millennium Concert.

I think it's really sensuous ... You can almost eat it. When I first heard it live I just thought, `what a sound' - it almost knocks you out." The sound, by which the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage has been seriously seduced, belongs to the classical/baroque Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Not the type of musicians with whom the cutting-edge Turnage is used to working at all, in fact.

But the BBC's idea of combining old and new, to demonstrate how the orchestra has changed and developed across the centuries, didn't stop at juxtaposing works by Beethoven and Turnage or Haydn and Oliver Knussen. Why not intertwine two contrasting ensembles, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) and Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG)?

Both are bands with which Sir Simon Rattle, who is to conduct this special BBC Millennium Concert, is closely associated. And the two orchestras, which perform at different pitches, wouldn't just meet at the interval but would actually play together at the same time. On Sunday night the 20 members of BCMG will tune to the present-day standard of concert-pitch in which the oboe's traditional tuning call of the A above middle C has 440 (double) vibrations per second (44 Hz).

The 32 OAE musicians, on the other hand, sticklers for historical accuracy in the "authentic" performance practice that composers such as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven would have recognised, will stick firmly to their principles and tune to 430. And at roughly a quarter of a tone apart, the two ensembles will stay, at least as long as the temperature in Ely Cathedral doesn't drop or, less likely, even with the presence of television cameras, rise dramatically. It's an extraordinary idea and one which has proved a learning curve for all concerned, not least Turnage, commissioned to write the new collaborative work.

"I began About Time when I was in Japan and felt strangely unsettled and disturbed by a mini-earthquake that occurred during my visit. The inspiration, or rather the actual music, actually came to me in a dream. Nothing like that has ever happened to me before or since.

"I only heard the OAE live for the first time after I'd agreed to write for the two different groups. I heard Frans Bruggen conduct Mozart with a fortepiano and though I'm honestly not a big Mozart fan, it sounded fantastic. At first I wrote a piece with very straightforward parts for the OAE, all simple tonal triadic music. I've known BCMG for a long time but composing for the OAE felt riskier, and I realise now I didn't entirely trust them, which was my mistake. I tried to chicken out or else get the OAE to tune up to standard concert pitch but that wasn't too popular ..."

To complicate matters, at an early run-through, the BCMG musicians sounded louder, their tuning more dominant and the effect of their higher pitch more brilliant to those accustomed to it. The piece needed more contrast and Rattle suggested to Turnage that perhaps he'd underused the period players and that he should be more positive, forget the tuning and just compose. "Bless him for taking it on ... It's thrilling and risky and sounds absolutely gorgeous," says Rattle.

Now the two sides have been given material in which they actively respond to each other, first in small interchanges and later in long-held contrasted chords which alternate between early strings and the contemporary group. These merge into glissando effects where players from both groups meet each other in a common pitch, with "past" and "present" mingling at first almost warily and then more vigorously.

Turnage enjoyed having room to expand, "I like the idea of both pitches playing together, not just in contrast. And I thought I'd do it at the end of the piece because it's like everyone coming together." One work for two quite separate ensembles playing instruments of totally different periods, each in their own performing style and clinging to their own pitch, would be quite enough for most composers. But Turnage has added a third dimension.

"I went to Ely Cathedral and when I saw the Octagon I just couldn't resist the spatial opportunities offered by an offstage brass quartet." So two trombonists and two flugel horn-players from BCMG will be perched high above the Cathedral crossing in the stone Octagon with its wood lantern, the Gothic equivalent of the Classical dome and one of the wonders of English cathedral architecture. Like the sudden sensation of space brought about by the contrast between the shadowy vaulting and bright light flooding on the star of the Octagon, About Time will begin with a distant evocation of the breaking of day, represented in a simple five-note theme that is never far away throughout the piece. The austere Cathedral's resonant acoustic combined with the quartet's lofty position is likely to produce yet another difference in pitch.

As the first composer to confront the problem of creating such an unusual work (it lasts about 12 minutes), Turnage didn't expect many organisations to consider taking it up although he tried not to create a piece locked in to one performance base. Yet even before its premiere there's already been a lot of interest. "I think people want novelty," suggests Turnage, who has found the whole experience "incredibly hard," and remains worried that the effect might be closer to an out-of-tune school orchestra than musicians from two highly regarded professional bodies. He'd be grateful, I'm sure, if you'd kindly leave your tuning-fork at home for this concert.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the BBC's Millennium Concert, which includes Haydn's Te Deum, Oliver Knussen's Two Organa and Beethoven's Choral Symphony, live on BBC2 and Radio 3 on Sunday 12 Dec at 8.00pm.

Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Arts and Entertainment
Nicki Minaj's lyric video for 'Only' features Drake as the Pope, Minaj as a dictator and Chris Brown as an army leader

music 'It was inspired by Cartoon Network'

Arts and Entertainment
James Nesbit in The Missing on BBC 1

TV review

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

    What are Jaden and Willow on about?

    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
    Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

    Cold war

    How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
    Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    ‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager