After a hugely successful concert at last year’s Clifton International Festival of Music, Ars Eloquentiae took us on a journey back in time to the Baroque stage for “A Tale of Two Cities: London and Paris, Stage and Street” at the Clifton Cathedral. The two halves of the concert were based around two principal works and composers. The first half centred on lesser-known composer Matthew Locke’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest as the British part of the evening. Lully’s comical Le bourgeois gentilhomme dominated the French part. Throughout, excerpts from these two works were interjected with street songs, which were compiled, researched and prepared by Dr Nicholas Hammond of Cambridge University.

Katie Bray © Rayfield Allied
Katie Bray
© Rayfield Allied

Historically, the programme worked as a good comparison between the French and English styles at the time with much of the inspiration in England coming from the French stage. The second ‘French’ half was more florid and melodies were more colourful. The first half of the concert was not as engaging, probably because the second half felt more meticulously planned and divided into three relevant sections with more information. The incidental music from The Tempest tended to drag a little without the visuals of stage movement that would have initially accompanied it and contrasted too much with the upbeat nature of the street songs. All the instrumentalists sang the songs, which worked to recreate the historical nature of how they would have been sung, but for musicality purposes, rather downplayed the elegant voice of British mezzo-soprano Katie Bray. Where Purcell’s “Dear Pretty Youth” from The Tempest was beautifully executed, the harsher “Come, let us drink” was less musically perfect. It would have been better to have a little pause between some of the more contrasting pieces of the evening.

Ars Eloquentiae played on traditional Baroque instruments. The harpsichord needed some attention and had to be retuned for the second part of the concert, but the authentic sound was vibrant. Each instrument had their own command of the group with individual character and driving force making their performance entertaining to watch. The musicians were also dressed in a theatrical manner, with bright colours and stripes between them. Oboist Leo Duarte donned a long purple velvet jacket and proceeded to dance around in some of the latter French street songs, emulating the mood of the music. The second part of the Parisienne music, entitled ‘Les Turcs’ contained some of the highlights of the evening, in particular the song La Vieille Certain se Fâche and Se ti Sabir which were sung in the original musical theatre performance by Lully himself.

The use of the venue space at Clifton Cathedral was slightly different for this concert. The front sections of chairs were turned around so that the main altar space was behind the audience. Sound wise, this made a tricky challenge for the performers in which, despite the sensitive nature of the acoustics of the building, they were difficult to hear. Although, when Katie Bray sang, her voice projected travelled up the funnel over the altar and travelled back through the audience from behind, creating a surround sound effect whilst the sound of the instrumental music stayed static in the seating area of the church. The combination had an ethereal quality where vocals were eminent over the music and worked rather well.

One of the main things that had surprised me about the Clifton International Festival of Music is the younger age of the performers that brings a fresh energy to each concert. The total experience was immersive and educational. The festival has sourced a great talent pool of diverse young performers for historically informative and memorable concerts. It is a fuel for a younger generation to be involved in such exciting projects.

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