Appearing late at night and least where you’d expect it, the Night Shift division of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been making waves ever since its creation six years ago.
The format has been to present a late-night repeat of the main concert in a nearby bar, jollied-up by alcoholic lubricants. Statistics show these events have indeed brought in a younger audience. Now comes ‘Purcell and pork scratchings’, aka ‘classical music on a pub crawl’, with the Night Shift visiting celebrated London pubs at all points of the compass. First off, the George Tavern in Stepney, a wonderfully La Boheme establishment whose landlady Pauline Foster makes a point of bringing in music her patrons don’t expect.
On the dais are cellist Robin Michael and violinists Maggie Faultless and Matt Truscott (whom I had watched the previous night leading the Classical Opera Company at the Wigmore – these early-music bods do get around). And yes, they’re playing Purcell. ‘It’s really going to get you, this music,’ promises Truscott, and they launch straight into the ‘Golden Sonata’, with Purcell’s melancholy chromaticism stilling the slightest sound from the packed and attentive audience. ‘How does it feel to play in here?’ asks the MC afterwards. ‘Very nice’ replies Truscott. ‘It’s great to have people so close.’ Then they play a Pavane, which sounds more lovely than usual in this intimacy. Then they play the opening section of ‘Fairest Isle’. ‘That was the single from the album,’ explains the appropriately-named Faultless, before they deliver more of that album. Next comes a little light musicology, with a ground bass explained. ‘Robin does this a lot,’ says Faultless, whereupon the cellist plays the figure he will be repeating. ‘Meanwhile we do other things round it.’ Actually that’s a pretty good explanation, in impeccably non-specialist terms.
Then it’s panto time as we are divided into three groups, each to sing the refrain of Purcell’s catch beginning ‘Once, twice, thrice, I Julia tried...’ and ending ‘So kiss my arse, disdainful sow/ Good claret is my mistress now.’ This was the other side of Purcell: he routinely leavened his pursuit of the sublime with bawdy songs which he and his friends sang in the pubs of their time – and rather better than we did.