Situated on the eastern fringes of the City of London, the Spitalfields Music Festival has always been focused on drawing in the very mixed communities living and working in the area. In particular, this year marks the 25th anniversary of its Learning and Participation programme, which takes music out to local people in schools, hospitals, libraries and the nearby city farm.
Even so, going one step further and inviting audience participation at the opening concert was a novelty. Hymn sheets were laid out on the seats and the audience’s role was to join choir and instrumentalists in two choral pieces by the early 17th-century German composer Michael Praetorius. (Those who arrived early had been given the benefit of a rehearsal, and the end result happily spared everybody’s blushes.)
Beyond the fun element, the intention was to recapture something of the congregational nature of a Lutheran church service. Getting people to participate in concerts of sacred music is nothing new – audiences are often invited to join in the chorales in Bach’s passions, and John Eliot Gardiner had the whole of the Royal Albert Hall singing along at his “Bach Day” last year – but the experience has a special resonance in Nicholas Hawksmoor’s magnificent Christ Church with its unique history.
Otherwise, this was a typically high-quality professional concert, like most featuring early music these days. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is one of the associate artists at Spitalfields this year and it fielded a small group of eight players (three sackbuts, two violins, a basse de violon and a dulcian) under Robert Howarth’s direction together with a slimmed-down Choir of the Enlightenment for a programme built around Praetorius’s Missa à 8 of 1607.
It is hard to believe that a typical church choir of that period would have been anything like as skilled as today’s full-time professionals. Inauthentic they may be, but there was real pleasure to be had from the singers’ virtuosity in Praetorius’s joyful Jubilate Domino and also the OAE’s dexterous instrumentalists in a pair of sonatas by Johann Rosenmüller. The festival runs until June 21, when it will end with a new work for 1,000 voices at the nearby Arnold Circus bandstand – more massed participation, Spitalfields-style.