I’m dreaming of a French Christmas

In the first of two seasonal posts before we close down for the holidays, Head of Early Music Liz Kenny writes about the work that led to concerts with her early music ensemble, Theatre of the Ayre, in Southampton and London last week:

Soprano Sophie Daneman as the goddess Diana - surprised in her bath by Actaeon, she turns him into a stag
Soprano Sophie Daneman as the goddess Diana – surprised in her bath by Actaeon, she turns him into a stag
Photo: Gerry Walden

With performance projects, getting the first plank or idea in place is the tricky bit, but once that’s done other ideas suggest themselves and the thing gets rolling.  The first bits of this particular snowball started to appear when I decided to put on Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s short opera Actéon as part of a concert Theatre of the Ayre had been invited to do in the Wigmore Hall and our own Turner Sims.   The time being December, some way of turning a tragedy about a hunter being turned into a stag and then devoured by his own dogs into something a bit more elf-and-Santa friendly needed to be found.  Fortunately Charpentier, who was writing for a French household with forces pretty similar to the large-chamber-sized group that we have, was never short of ideas for Christmas, so we paired it with a lovely cantata on the Nativity.  I then went off in search of some French carols –  Noels – tunes which were used to frame Christmas words and then arranged for instruments.

Theatre of the Ayre
Photo: Gerry Walden

Despite having persuaded the open-minded Kevin Appleby at Turner Sims that one concert in his rich array of Christmastide performances, where Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer would come to a sticky end, would be OK, it was clear that the cheery Noels would need to frame it.  Nothing more cheery – not to mention gloriously noisy – than a band of oboes and bassoon, so we spent the morning of the Turner Sims concert with a gang of recorders and double reeds, sorting out our tunes with some swinging French rhythms, some arrangements of parts here and there and sprinkled all with a healthy dose of trills.


You can see Fiona, Catherine, Yuying, Tu, David and Christabel here (baroque ensembles work from bottom to top, so they are listed here in that order) playing alongside Theatre of the Ayre musicians Pamela Thorby, Kate Latham and Merlin Harrison and myself, in the foyer before the concert.

There’s more about both concerts in this news item over on the main Music department website, including some nice press reviews of the London performance.