The only disappointment in the concert given the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s ‘Night Shift’ team in Sage Gateshead’s Hall Two was that it was a concert. A straightforward concert, with the audience, many of whom were Sage Gateshead regulars, sitting quietly in neat rows: business more or less as usual, and not at all like the pictures of informal pub-style gigs that I’d seen on the OAE Night Shift website. Sage Gateshead hosts a huge variety of music, and its halls are designed to be flexible and accommodate different styles and audiences – indeed I’ve seen some very imaginatively staged classical concerts here in Hall Two, so this seemed like a huge missed opportunity both in terms of setting and audience.

Anna Dennis © Edition Peters
Anna Dennis
© Edition Peters
If there had been any classical music newcomers in the hall, they would certainly have felt welcome by the musicians; the five instrumentalists and soprano Anna Dennis were relaxed and informal, and chatted engagingly to the audience about Purcell, his music and their instruments, and managing to be both informative and entertaining.

And the music! This was not music for the concert hall, this was music played for the outside world, pulsating with all the vigour of 17th-century London. I wanted to be on my feet, dancing and losing my mind. The instrumental and vocal extracts from The Fairy Queen that made up the first half were steeped in passion from the instrumentalists and from Anna Dennis. Her voice, heavy and velvety, lent earthiness and humanity to Purcell’s songs: Thrice Happy was laden with sauciness, a far cry from any idea of ethereal fairy dalliances. She described Let me weep as being sung by someone who wants their misery to be the centre of attention, and that was how she sang it, with flamboyant woe, whilst the instruments supplied the deeper sadness that tinges the song. Moving away from The Fairy Queen, she left me completely entranced by Sweeter than Roses, helped by a gorgeously warm cello and theorbo continuo line played by Jonathan Byers and David Miller.

The OAE musicians often perform their Night Shift concerts in pubs, and they certainly played as if they were in that sort of free and relaxed atmosphere. David Miller rolled into a flurry of theorbo notes during Let me weep as if he were a rock guitarist and added piquant dashes of colour to If love’s a sweet passion. A Fairy Queen Rondeau illustrated the influence of French music with a sunny inégale swing and the final Chaconne, played with uninhibited abandon brought this précis of Purcell’s Fairy Queen to a satisfyingly cheerful close.  

The second half of the set moved to more intimate music; pieces for enjoying with friends or at home. During An Evening Hymn, I had a vivid image in my head of a woman pottering around her house, flooded with the light of sunset, singing to herself as she did her chores, and the musicians retained this mellow sunlit atmosphere for their encore, Fairest Isle.

Mobile phones often play an inadvertent role in modern concerts, but tonight a Samsung smartphone became one of the performers. The OAE Night Shift team claimed they couldn’t get an extra player willing to come so far just to play the single drone note in Fantasia on one note so they used a phone app instead. A little gimmicky perhaps, but the unbroken tone from the phone was a brilliant demonstration of how Purcell’s piece works and added to the sense that we were just listening to a group of friends messing around at home.

Purcell’s music is often tinged with a sweet, otherworldly melancholy that has the power to draw me far away from whatever is going on in the world, and this pull away from life’s cares and distractions was at its strongest during the single movement chaconne of the Sonata no. 6. Violinists Kati Debretzeni and Huw Daniel played with raw intensity through the piece’s twists and turns, through blazes of Italianate passion to the absolute lovely sadness at the end, their musicianship bringing out the very best of Purcell.

I can see that The OAE Night Shift programme could be an incredibly attractive way to present classical music in a different way, to new audiences and I hope that if they return to the North East, they’ll have a chance to give us the full experience in a setting that matches what we were hearing from the musicians.