In Handel’s early 18th century London, Hackney was a growing chain of hamlets and a far cry from the composer’s favorite grounds of Mayfair and the West End. Handel would no doubt have been perplexed by the artfully curated facial hair (and the eye-popping cost of his beloved coffee) in the current East End club headquarters. But the wet nervousness of Underground VillageThe converted warehouse space is also some distance from London Handel Festival‘s usual venues – and I suspect this was the very first LHF gig to usher in its audience with heavy-bottom Latin music over the PA system.
The program was a mixture of Handel, other early music and contemporary alternative classical, all slightly amplified. The first set was for solo violin: Aisha Orazbayeva competed with passing motorbikes as she performed movements by Bach, Handel and Bassano – all gritty bows and pointillist counterpoint – complemented by two gently trippy pieces (looping melodies, harmonics, microtones) from Olivier Leith.
Post-interval, soprano Anna Dennis joined the string collective 12 Set in their LHF debut. The easy beauty of Dennis’ singing in Handel’s Lascia Ch’io Pianga by Rinaldo is haunting and the performance of 12 Ensemble de Furie Terribili from the same opera is a showcase of the ultra-tight, ultra-energetic string playing. The world premiere of Joss Campbell’s electronic treatment of Terribili Fury begins with a comedic crash of thunder, but is otherwise made of more subtle things, Dennis’ recorded vocal line breaking amid live string harmonics, the sonic world seductively oscillating between baroque and modern, acoustic and electronic. But much of the program feels monochromatic, with Dennis trapped in a bland musical world of melancholic vocalization.
The idea, new LHF director Gregory Batsler explained, is to bring the festival into “spaces that normally wouldn’t hear Handel’s music”. But the reality was a concert that was like any other – except the audience stood for two hours and had plastic pint glasses in their hands as they listened in silence. As a guy next to me said to one of his friends during intermission: “I didn’t expect it to be so quiet – it feels like a real concert”.