Prom 72: Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon
Mathew Baynton (actor), Jane Mitchell (stage director / scriptwriter), James Bonas (stage director), Kate Wicks (production designer), Will Reynolds (consultant designer), Cydney Uffindell-Phillips (movement consultant)
Berlioz Symphonie fantastique Op.14 (1830)
Orchestral theatre staging; script by Jane Mitchell;
excerpts from Berlioz’s Mémoires translated by David Cairns
Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 12 September 2019 (first of two evening performances)
Reviewed by Ben Hogwood
Photography credits Mark Allan
You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here
One of the aims of the Proms must surely be to attract new audiences to classical music, while enhancing the experience of the existing crowd. Both those aims were met with room to spare by this educational and often dramatic ‘orchestral theatre staging’ of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, given by Mathew Baynton, the Aurora Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon.
As in previous seasons the Aurora were playing from memory, a great achievement when you consider at least 70 performers had to memorize not just the notes but the directions on how to shape them. Given the composer’s scrupulous markings in this area it is up for debate as to how many of these the performers would have been able to commit to memory, but judging by their performance – and Collon’s conducting – the answer would seem to have been a great deal.
It is worth remembering that Berlioz – commemorated this year in the 150th anniversary of his death – wrote the Symphonie Fantastique in 1830. Coming just three years after the death of Beethoven and Schubert, that is a staggering achievement and shifting of musical parameters, even though Collon’s assertion that it was the first ‘programmatic’ symphony could be called into question alongside Beethoven’s sixth, the Pastoral.
That is a quibble for another day, however, for this was a brilliantly weighted blend of drama, history and music. Mathew Baynton played Hector Berlioz himself, communicating the story of the composer’s first encounter with Harriet Smithson, the woman who initially spurned his advances and was the muse for the Symphonie fantastique, but who eventually became his first wife. The story was told with an attractive arrangement by Iain Farrington of the composer’s La belle voyageuse from his Neuf Mélodies Op.2, played by soloists from the orchestra.
It helped that Baynton even resembled the composer slightly, and his dialogue with Collon examined the moods and innovations of Berlioz along with the trials and tribulations of his spurned love. With this background established they examined some of the main themes of the piece and its innovations with orchestration, the audience effectively eavesdropping on a conversation that revolved around Berlioz’s ‘Idée fixe’. This was the main theme of the symphony, its music helpfully projected onto behind the players, so while we heard it in example form from the violins we were able to witness the close attention the composer paid to its phrasing and shaping.
The performance itself was helpfully pointed and often dramatically lit. The innovative orchestration was also spotlit, the four harps placed front of stage for the second movement, Un Bal, in the way Berlioz suggested. This movement ended with a wonderful effect from three glitterballs, held by the percussionists, bringing a starry night to the Royal Albert Hall. The woodwind were also brought forward at opportune moments, with the bassoons a threatening presence at the start of the March to the Scaffold.
In a very striking third movement, Scène aux champs, Patrick Flanaghan projected the shepherd’s theme out over the arena from his cor anglais, the answering call from fellow oboist John Roberts coming back to him from the stalls. This proved incredibly effective; even more so when the theme recurred at the end of the movement. With no answer forthcoming from the oboe, there sounded ominous distant thunder from the timpani.
This led us into the March to the Scaffold, where the brass – with more than a nod to historically informed performances – were superb. Yet the keenest drama was saved for last of all, each player donning a mask for the Witches’ Sabbath.
This final denouement showed the composer at his darkest and most vulnerable, the bells delivering the telling Dies irae from the gallery in another masterstroke of placement. With everyone in masks and the lights a dull red the Tolkien parallels were irresistible, especially when the percussionists were striking their instruments like orcs going to war. It would have been scary for any kids in the audience, for sure!
The planning for this occasion was extremely effective, the experience breathing new life into the Symphonie Fantastique for those who have seen it on several occasions, but also enticing new concertgoers through a much more audience-friendly approach, as you will see in our own Ask The Audience feature to come on Arcana.
It was a fitting way to complete the Proms commemorations of the Berlioz anniversary, with one of his most revolutionary scores made to sound like the ink was still drying on his page.