The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's name sounds suspiciously like the work of a committee. It hardly trips off the tongue. But never mind. The playing of this London-based, member-governed ensemble -- the first of two period-instrument bands traversing the Twin Cities this month as participants in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra's semicentennial festivities -- is everything its name is not, as it gracefully demonstrated Friday evening at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie.
Centered on Bach and Telemann, Friday's concert was devoted to later baroque music in the German orbit, notably Jan Dismas Zelenka's harmonically audacious "Hipocondrie" -- easily the most eye-opening of the evening's performances. It was also a tale of two Rachels. The young English soprano Rachel Nicholls sang irresistibly in two solo cantatas, including Bach's jubilant "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" (Praise God in All Lands). And baroque violinist Rachel Podger, a grand master of her instrument, led the entire program (capped by her own arrangement, for three violins, of Bach's C-major Concerto for Three Harpsichords) with an eloquence and authority that were beautiful to hear and to watch.
Listeners of a certain vintage are apt to recall the pioneering period bands of three and four decades ago without much enthusiasm. "Thin whiney string sounds with exaggerated 'bulges,' dodgy intonation, woodwind squawks and squeaks of the most painful kind" -- so wrote conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who was in the thick of it. With these forerunners, the OAE (founded in 1986) has almost nothing in common. The group, augmented as necessary, embraces repertory from Monteverdi to Mahler and beyond. And if a few instruments (such as David Blackadder's natural trumpet in Friday's account of "Jauchzet Gott") can still prove refractory, stylistic and technical security is now the norm.
This may yet become a problem. The period-performance "movement" has been largely institutionalized; its radicalism has dissipated. For the moment, however, complaint feels premature.
As for the Rachels: Nicholls kept her nose in her score for much of the evening, but her voice, velvet touched with silver, should take her far. Attuned to words, she vividly conjured the flames in Telemann's grim "Ertrage nur das Joch der Mängel." Podger, whose discs of Bach's unaccompanied sonatas and partitas belong in any desert-island collection, has a rhythmic flair that enlivens everything she plays; she'd make an intriguing artistic partner for the SPCO.
Larry Fuchsberg is a Minneapolis writer.