Written by Anna Mairi Scott

Never Have I Ever”? You probably haven’t- classical music isn’t most people’s idea of a wild night out: stuffy concert halls, archaic rules, endless rounds of applause – it can certainly come across as boring and impenetrable. Once the most popular in the Western World, there are concerns that classical music is isolating our generation, and in danger of killing off its own future in the process.

But what if you could go to a classical concert that felt like a gig- a night out with your friends where you could grab a few drinks and have the craic, while getting to hear some world class music? The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is a period instrument orchestra based in London. With only five core artists it is revolutionising the classical music scene, ripping up the rules by bringing The Night Shift to the people of London: a classical music series which feels like a gig ‘down the pub’. Thanks to their excellent concession rates for students (only £4!), I headed down to The Night Shift at the Concert Hall of St John, Smith’s Square on Monday 30th of November to check it out.

An intimate venue, dimly lit, the sea of heads: brown and blonde and yes, grey, belonging to students, 30-something professionals, middle aged couples and pensioners (including one pensioner with blue hair- I want to be her friend but she’s out of my league). The audience in St John’s Smith Square all enjoying the music, and there is no ban on alcohol in the hall- how shocking, alcohol in the concert hall! Same as any other concert! Concert goers who, like me, were late, (I’m always late), were immediately hit by the fantastic five piece sound of support act, Last Summer’s Tealights. Their unique fusion of jazz, folk, pop and classical was dramatic and thrilling – particularly haunting were solos from cellist Shirley Smart. The quieter, marimba driven moments, played by Hal Hutchison, were moving, providing balance to this excellent set.

Cue the drama: after Last Summer’s Tealights’ final tune, The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were welcomed on-stage along with the fantastic baroque violinist Rachel Podger. Without a word of introduction, dark harpsichord and string chords cut through the air as the ensemble began to play one of Vivaldi’s concerto for two violins and cello. Rachel moves to the music, almost dancing as she plays- as good as Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, and just as much a superstar. The tension and drama of this performance is riveting, as proven by the screaming applause of the adoring fan-girls and boys in the crowd.

What’s different about The Orchestra for the Age of Enlightenment in the classical world is that they perform like a band- no leaders or egos. Their performance is based around the principle of equality and inclusivity; they use a low stage to put the orchestra as close to audience level as possible, and they interact with the audience in between each piece. Rachel and violinist Matthew Truscott discuss the compositions between each piece, and take questions from the audience, creating an intimacy that feels like watching your friends perform. Their passion on-stage has been warm and welcoming, and would keep any true music fan captivated.

Could this be the way to bring classical music to a totally new audience? I ask Barbara, 20 (soon to be 21, happy birthday Barbara!), a student at the London School of Economics, and Suzanna, 20, a student at University College London, if they’ve had a good night. “I like that they play old instruments, and talk between the pieces- and we can drink wine!” says Barbara, who always makes an effort to go to any Night Shift gig. But Suzanna also appreciates the traditions of classical music- “Going to a formal concert sometimes can be a pleasant change”.

In my view, more orchestras and ensembles should follow The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s lead, with relaxed performances in unusual venues, without compromising on standard. The Ulster Orchestra is an amazing orchestra, which has already put itself out there: performing with artists such as Duke Special, Katharine Philippa and Moxie. But would you be more likely to buy a ticket to see them if you could just come along, chill and enjoy, without any stuffy rules? If you could clap when you wanted, or cheer when your favourite piece started? Imagine walking into Cuckoo on the Lisburn Road and a string quartet playing in the background. Why not?

We need to put classical music back where it belongs- in the streets, with the people, young and old. Throughout history, classical music has been cool, sexy and revolutionary, and it can be today, if we let it.

Recommended Playlist


VIVALDI                                             Concerto for Two Violins and Cello

BACH                                                 Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor

TELEMANN                                     Concerto for Four Violins

BACH                                                Double Violin Concerto