Aurora to play special gig in Belgium on the night UK leaves the EU

No real surprise here.

I spoke to the Aurora Orchestra’s Chief Exec John Harte at the ABO conference in January in an interview during which he revealed Aurora’s plans to play a gig in Belgium on the night the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, assuming Theresa gets her way.

The concert programme – the closing concert in the Brussels Klarafestival and staged at BOZAR concert hall – includes works that symbolise the UK’s connection with Europe despite the political situation – Britten’s Illuminations, Tavener’s Protecting Veil and Haydn’s Farewell Symphony.

It’s a nifty opportunity to exploit a strong news-line that could give Aurora bit of a boost in the national press and broadcast media. Just one thing necessary: Theresa May’s deal goes through. If outlets are looking to reflect on what Brexit means for the UK on the day we leave then it will be good to see an exciting British orchestra included in the coverage.

That Aurora have made the announcement suggests too that they anticipate a soft Brexit is on the cards, and that they are sufficiently confident about arrangements during the transition.

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Shostakovich from Aurora

This has not been an easy week.

The trip to Suffolk forced me to confront some ugly truths which cannot be overlooked any more. I returned to London feeling battered and bruised. The morning after (Wednesday) I felt like I’d run a marathon the day before. A chilling void followed.

The music I started to listen back to on Wednesday (Aurora Orchestra’s late night Shostakovich programme) didn’t seem to cut it. Not at first.

That’s not to say the performances I was listening to didn’t hold my attention. Nor that they failed to display any merit. Far from it. I was just a bit sore. 

I’ve listened to Aurora’s Shostakovich programme maybe five or six times since. I’m still not sure it’s required listening by all, but it’s lodged itself in my consciousness. Replacement memories have constructed themselves during each successive listen.

Despite the hype dripping from the live broadcast of their concert, the Aurora’s ‘play it from memory and move around a bit’ did result in a noticeably richer, more colourful sound.

They are undoubtedly a fantastic band. They approach everything with vim and vigour (there’s even an endearing hint of teenage bravado about them too).

Aurora are more likeable as a brand than MusicAeterna‘s ‘rock star’ marketing Sony Classical pushed and the BBC reflected in their broadcasts.

Aurora’s woodwind demonstrated the extent to which playing stood up and from memory has on the sound: soloistic playing gives the music more of a chance to shine.

I listened to the broadcast arse about face, starting with Shostakovich 9. Memories flooded back. Post-county youth orchestra tour in the summer of ’89, I’d secured the Lenningrad and symphony number nine on Chandos from a record shop in Cambridge. SYO playing his fifth had unlocked something. I wanted more. On a first listen, his ninth symphony presented itself as a calling card for efficiency, compactness and utter brilliance – a start contrast to the epic imposing Lenningrad. Summer 1989: the first steps.

What pulled me back to the present was the beginning of the Proms broadcast – pianist Denis Kozhukhin’s playing in the second movement of the Shostakovich’s second piano concerto. The Aurora maintained a modest distance with its pained opening melody; the piano’s melodic material a wistful and healing counterpoint.

I’m familiar with this work. Heard it loads of times before now. But it’s never touched me in this way before. Sat there at the desk, looking out over the garden I’ve steered clear of for the past 12 months for fear my inner slacker will run rampant, and started to cry. Tuesday’s unpleasantness had found the valve.

The second movement conveys something so painfully lonely it’s almost too much to bear. There’s an underlying hint of determination. We’re not going to be beaten. We’re going to find what we need from wherever we can find it. And somehow, we’re going to kick it all down. We will find our space in the world.

This and the third movement that followed has grown on me during the repeat listens I’ve flown through over the past 48 hours. It’s retrieved me from wherever it was I was languishing. That a live performance can achieve something so incredibly valuable to me personally reinforces what an an amazing genre of live performance this music really is. 

Review: Arvo Pärt’s Passio from Tenebrae and Aurora Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square

Oratorios are a strange listening experience for a non-believer. Liturgical music even more so. I attend such performances with an assumption that I should really be a fully 'paid-up member' of the belief system before I can fully appreciate the work I'm about to listen to.  

After Arvo Pärt's Passio last night at St John's Smith Square, I'm a little bit closer to finalising a listening strategy for such performances.

What drew me to this event – the selling point I used to hook my OH in – was the chance to hear Tenebrae live. Their latest release on Signum had a big impact on me, Schoenberg's Friede auf Erden particularly stunning). The cynic in me questioned whether what I had responded to emotionally – the warm tone and lavishly-upholstered legato – was the result of a production process.

It wasn't. Tenebrae is like that live. A small group of voices not only sings with unflinching power and an awesome sound but does so without fussiness or distraction.

And, as there turned out to be on stage last night when one of their own faints part-way through the performance, first-responding colleagues move swiftly to provide the necessary support whilst still miraculously ensuring the atmosphere all on the platform have worked hard to create remains intact. They are, quite simply, remarkable performers on a whole variety of levels.

Arvo Pärt's score is lean. Melodic motifs capture the natural rhythms and cadence of the passion text. The resulting musical language has a raw simplicity to, powered by a spirit depicted in the contrary motion heard between the instruments and the voices. The end product isn't soporific by any means, but hypnotic. Subtle shifts of urgency and intensity are introduced with suspended notes linking transitioning chords – a sort of pedal note but implemented in reverse. There were moments when the intensity was almost too much too bear – a sort of emotional pain of an entirely different kind from the everyday and one that promises to linger long beyond the performance is over. I've experienced that in performances of Mahler symphonies before now. That kind of experience is down to the alchemy in the music.

It's also an efficient piece of storytelling where each word appears to be given equal weight, statements are hurried, and meaning isn't lost. The performance didn't tarry by any means; the work allows everyone the time to consider what it is that we're listening to. 

Bass Jimmy Holliday overcame some difficulties with his voices, playing the role of Jesus with touching humility, and warmth. Of the Evangelist chorus – a beguiling interweaving of human voices that gave the narrative an almost balletic quality throughout – special mention to David de Winter (tenor) and Hannah Cooke (mezzo) whose sang with poise, precision and a delectable tone.

Come the end, conductor Nigel Short held a silent stage and audience at St John's Smith Square hanging for what felt like an eternity. No-one moved. No-one dared. No-one could. Such was the impact of 75 minutes concluded by a blistering Amen. Remarkably focussed music-making.

BBC Proms 2017 / 10: Beethoven Symphony No. 3 / Aurora Orchestra

Beethoven 3 last night sounded remarkable. Rich and sonorous. Sinewy. Robust. Their playing gave the music life, giving the work a newness I’d not heard before.

It amazes me how much of a difference musicians playing from memory can have on a performance. Aurora Orchestra’s USP reinvigorates the genre and the concert-going experience breathing new life into the repertory the same way the period performance movement did in the early nineties.

All too often we settle for the orthodox. When I hear something unashamedly different from the norm, it makes me clap my hands together excitedly. So too here.

Another standout moment from this year’s season. But then it was Aurora Orchestra. What did you expect a fanboy to say?

Ayres No.42 (In the Alps – an animated concert) / Brahms Symphony No.1 / Aurora Orchestra

The Aurora Orchestra are rocket fuel for the UK classical music scene.

The most exciting orchestra around – the Aurora Orchestra – is brimming with youthful vigour and drive. A reflection of their tousled conductor Nicholas Collon no doubt, whose enthusiasm, charm, and poise is underpinned by a powerful vision and enviable self-belief.

Richard Ayres comic melodrama No. 42 (In the Alps) combined silent movie visuals with chamber orchestra and voice, in an engaging piece of entertainment. Ayres’ efficient story-telling supported a pacey plot, suggesting a context for the inspiration Brahms found for the fourth movement horn solo of his first symphony. A pleasing flight-of-fancy that made for a compelling programme. Ayres deploys an inventive, rich, and resourceful compositional technique and creates a sophisticated piece of entertainment – a gateway for the wider repertory.

Aurora’s performance of Brahms 1 had a sense of urgency about it. It was brisk, taut and precise too. There might even have been grit too (though my plus one for the even thinks there are negative connotations with the word grit). Standing up and playing from memory – the band’s USP – meant that everyone had the space to express. The sound was expansive, the dynamic range breathtaking, and the resulting applause unequivocal and insistent.

It’s a treat to see so many musicians so engaged on the platform, not only with their conductor, but with one another. The players engage with the audience. We engage with them. Everyone ends up leaving the concert venue having had a riotously good time. The Aurora Orchestra conjure up something magical on stage.

Special words should be committed for some cracking programme notes: unorthodox design, playful, and utterly refreshing. Lovely work people. Lovely work.

The Aurora Orchestra are appearing at the Grange Festival from 25 June in a production of Britten’s Albert Herring conducted by Steuart Bedford.