It might be one of the world’s leading period instrument orchestras, but Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) is also one of the most innovative. Since 2006, it has been running a series of casual format late night concerts which it calls ‘The Night Shift’. Beginning typically around 10 pm, these are hour-long, low cost performances in which listeners can bring a drink and hear the orchestra playing in more relaxed circumstances. People are free to talk and clap as they like, and support acts and DJs vary up the program.
Billed as ‘Classical music: minus the rules’, The Night Shift has become a striking success, especially with younger people. Two years after the series began, The Guardian’s Tom Service put the audience age at under 35 and was surprised at the lively atmosphere he encountered.
“Best of all was the reaction of the audience: enthusiastic standing ovations at the end, real concentration during the performances, and some judicious beer-swilling,” he wrote. “Without selling the music short, the OAE has created a winner with the Night Shift – or rather, its audience has… the Night Shift is that rarest of classical music-birds: a newfangled concert format that lives up to the hype.”
The series continues to run at London’s Southbank Centre, where OAE is resident, but now the orchestra also holds The Night Shift in a range of other London venues. These include Camden’s Roundhouse, Wilton’s Music Hall, Village Underground and pubs dotted around the city.
“We are trying to present this music as if it were new,” says OAE’s first violinist Matthew Truscott. “Not by altering the music, but by presenting it in the way that it was intended to be heard.”
Nobody minds if mobile phones go off, and indeed in one performance this year the orchestra used a phone app to supply the drone note in Purcell’s Fantasia Upon One Note. “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,” wrote Bachtrack’s Jane Shuttleworth.
One can sample the flavour of these concerts in a YouTube video made by OAE two years ago.
The Night Shift’s success would seem to indicate that informal concert giving is key to getting younger audiences along to classical music, and OAE’s initiative might well be worth taking up by other classical performers, including here in Australia