On record – Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon: Music of the Spheres (DG)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sam Swallow (vocalist), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)
Richter Journey (CP1919) (2019)
Dowland arr. Muhly Time Stands Still (1603)
Adès Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005)
Bowie arr. John Barber Life on Mars? (1971)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838228 [69′]

Recorded 9 June 2019, Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Only the Aurora Orchestra could put together an album running from Mozart to David Bowie. Yet as we have seen from their previous themed releases such as Insomnia and Road Trip, there are no gimmicks involved in their musical choices and a clear theme runs through the programming.

Music of the Spheres is no exception, beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony before music from Max Richter (Journey), Dowland via Muhly (Time Stands Still) and the Violin Concerto of Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths. The soloist here is Pekka Kuusisto, while the Aurora play the Jupiter symphony entirely from memory, as they did in the BBC Proms in 2016.

What’s the music like?

There is something for everyone here. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is his 41st and final essay in the genre, setting a new bar for the form when it was completed. While the first three movements are particularly fine it is the finale that comes in for the greatest acclamation, for its well-nigh perfect fusion of melody and counterpoint.

Richter’s Journey CP1919, is inspired by and named after the discovery of the first Pulsar star. It fits perfectly onto the tail of the Mozart, running at a slow speed and operating in C minor rather than the earlier piece’s key of C major.

By contrast Adès’ Concentric Paths operates in a wider orbit, the violin soaring at great heights over the compelling orchestral writing, which has in its spiralling strong echoes of the music of Benjamin Britten. As soloist Pekka Kuusisto has described, ‘it’s hyper-emotional music for people in an accelerating world’.

Complementing these instrumental pieces are two songs of identical length but very different form – a serene early 17th century song from Dowland and one of the best-known pop songs of the 20th century. Having heard from Jupiter and CP1919, Sam Swallow asks, to effective arranged accompaniment, is there Life On Mars?

Does it all work?

Pretty much! The Jupiter gets an athletic performance from the Aurora Orchestra – no dallying here, or lingering on expressive notes. That does mean a darkening of the slow movement, and maybe some constricted phrases, but by contrast it means an exciting first movement, a mysterious Menuetto and a lithe finale, busy and brilliantly played.

The Richter is haunting and really effective, its simplicity leaving the orchestra plenty of room to create a remote atmosphere. The songs are great too – Iestyn Davies is the perfect choice for the Dowland, with Nico Muhly’s sensitive orchestration, while Sam Swallow puts his own stamp on Life on Mars? without losing the essence of the original, which is an impressive achievement.

Yet the performance I kept coming back to was Pekka Kuusisto’s white-hot rendering of the Adès. This is terrifically difficult music to play, but he makes it sound easy even at the highest points of the violin range, and the moods range from serenity to power and even anger as the music moves relentlessly forwards. On occasion I have to admit I find Thomas Adès music hard to relate to emotionally, but this is a clear exception and the music digs deep.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Aurora’s albums are great at bringing music of very different origins together, exposing new elements and old qualities, and it does so again here. Freshly minted Mozart and brilliantly played contemporary works, plus a good deal of imagination. What’s not to love?

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You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Presto website

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Chris Tams on the Aurora Orchestra’s performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique

For another in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series we took Chris Tams (above) to see the Aurora Orchestra give a dramatized production of Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Chris talks though his musical experiences as a plugger before joining the BPI, where he works as Director of Independent Member Services and International.

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)

Chris, how would you describe your musical upbringing?

I had a family that weren’t particularly musical, but they were always encouraging. I grew up in a large family, with three sisters and a brother, and we were always encouraged to follow what we wanted to do. I remember my dad buying a record player when I was about nine, and buying an Elvis Presley album and a Spinners album. I remember pathologically hating them for ever and ever! I got quite in to electronic music very early on, I remember liking Vangelis when I was about 11 or 12 years old. I went to junior school and wasn’t musical at all, but when I went to grammar school they had a choir and I made the mistake of singing properly on the first music lesson so I got roped into the choir for two years! Then my voice broke and I went from a soprano right down to a double, double bass, so they didn’t have much say after that. I played the violin as a child and hated it, learned to play the cornet and got to hate that.

I quite liked music as a subject though, and I was one of the first people in the country to take GCSE Music, which seemed to move away from just learning composers’ birth dates and death dates, much to our music teacher’s disdain. Unfortunately I still had to play the cornet for a bit, which I still didn’t like, but I got a greater appreciation of music and the science behind it. When I got to 14 or 15 I suddenly discovered there was a world of gigs out there, and I started writing and talking about them. Getting into gigs for free was a big thing in the 1980s in Yorkshire. I used to frequent a pub called the Duchess of York in Leeds, and I used to write the most hamfisted fanzine you could ever imagine, using a Methodist church rotary printer to print out a single A4 sheet. No copies of that survive to this day but it mostly consisted of me rambling about how much I loved Simple Minds and hated U2. I went to university and discovered I could put on gigs and club nights, using other peoples’ money which was always a good thing!

I put on gigs in independent venues – I remember getting Radiohead a gig when they were supporting the Frank and Walters, I gave Oasis a gig, and a very early form of Blur. My biggest gig at university was Rolf Harris, and it was so big we had three people have to go to hospital with crush injuries! All of this set me up for working in the industry afterwards.

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

Firstly I would say Simple Minds. I’ve been a fan since I was about ten years old I think. I fell in love with New Gold Dream when I was in my teens and have loved them ever since. I fell out with them a bit in the late 1990s but it’s all back again now and they are the best band I know.

There was also a record I remember called Perfume by a band called Paris Angels, and it was one of the first records I ever heard that was an Indie dance record. I hated dance music up to that point, and thought it was all rubbish. I sort of liked Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s ‘Jack Your Body’ when it came out but it got annoying after a while. Perfume really opened my mind to the idea of using music across genres, it really blew me away. I listen to it now and it’s still an amazing record, one of the first progressive house records. You can really see where that movement came from.

Thirdly I would say The Prodigy. I’m very lucky that early on in my career I worked with them, pretty much from the start of the second part of their career. They had already had a number one record with Charly, and I started with them around 1992-93. I got to work on The Prodigy Experience and Music For The Jilted Generation, and that was just mind blowing. Kids who were ravers loved it, and kids who were into Led Zeppelin liked it, the out and out rockers loved it too.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

I’ve worked on classical music a lot. I used to work for a distribution company that did some classical music, and I was always very sheepish when they came across my desk. I was always aware that I knew very little about the music and about them, but I always found that the classical people I worked with were always really welcoming. I still claim to know nothing about classical music and have never pretended to, but I like good music and can appreciate all sorts of different types. My thoughts are that I’ve heard so many different types, it’s not just the same 10-15 composers, there is a lot more variety.

When you look at films, games and TV I’m amazed how much classical music is used there without us even noticing! The games especially use a huge amount of it, and there is not a film goes by without one or two bits showing up. There is some weird shit for sure – and my particular highlight was going to a classical event in Vienna some years ago and witnessing four women shrieking, that was a particular thing! I always remember meeting Gabriel Prokofiev, who who puts classical music in line with dance music and described his own music as ‘challenging’ once which I thought was interesting. I really liked what he did where he would take classical music and make dance music out of it, but without the use of computers, he would use the beats that are there. I thought that was really clever and it was really listenable and open. I thought it was amazing, and still do now!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

I really enjoyed it! It helped that the conductor came out and explained a lot of what was going to happen, otherwise I would have been at sea trying to work out what was happening. I thought he made it really accessible. I didn’t get any sense of elitism or snobbery, and in fact the woman who was next to me pointed out to her partner that the last time she was at the Royal Albert Hall she saw Nine Inch Nails, which I thought was great. You couldn’t get two more different artists to watch in the same venue!

It helped that the concert was short, but I think it was really accessible and interesting. I quite liked the orchestra, they weren’t stuffy. They were quite young, and standing up which I thought was interesting. There was an audiovisual element that I really liked as well. In terms of popping my Proms cherry I thought it was a really good one to go to!

What might you improve about the experience?

I don’t think I’ve got enough experience to change anything about it! It is quite intimidating if you haven’t been there, because you make assumptions about it. None of those assumptions are correct in any way, shape or form. I went dressed in a shirt, jeans and trainers – and so did most of the other people there did too! I thought most people would be dressed in dinner suits, but not at all. It was quite a mixed age crowd, a lot of young and old there. The thing I loved too was that the people there were really experiencing it, they weren’t looking through a mobile phone at it. I couldn’t think of anything to change on that one experience.

Would you go again?

Definitely. I thought it was a really good introduction to a British institution and would definitely go again. The range of concerts is absolutely awesome, and I think it’s a jewel in London’s crown that a lot of people are missing out on!

For Arcana’s thoughts on the Aurora Orchestra Prom of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, click here

Arcana at the Proms – Prom 72: Aurora Orchestra & Nicholas Collon – Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique

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.

Live review – CBSO with Nicholas Collon: Savitri & The Planets

nicholas-collon

Yvonne Howard (mezzo-soprano, Sāvitri), Robert Murray (tenor, Satyavān), James Rutherford (baritone, Death), CBSO Youth Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (above)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Wednesday 8th February, 2017

Holst Sāvitri, H96 (1909); The Planets, H125 (1916)

holst

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

Cheltenham-born Gustav Holst enjoyed a close relationship with the City of Birmingham Symphony right from its inception, so it was good to see a concert being devoted to his music as part of The Spirit of England series running through to the orchestra’s centenary in 2020.

The elapsing of 108 years has not dulled the innovative qualities of Sāvitri, Holst’s one-act opera with which he made a decisive move from the Wagnerian opulence of his earlier music (not least the three-act opera Sita, still awaiting complete performance), towards the lean and often introspective expression of his maturity. Just over half-an-hour in length, it explores the time-honoured operatic themes of love and redemption as a means of transcending death – all rendered from a curious amalgam of Vedic teaching and Socialist thinking wholly of its time yet no less influential for being so. In addition, the scoring for just three woodwinds and nine strings, along with (wordless) offstage female voices, blazed the trail for later generations of British opera. No Sāvitri = no Britten chamber-operas and no Maxwell Davies music-theatre.

First heard in Birmingham 63 years ago, Sāvitri was given by the CBSO in 2004 and 2008. Then, as now, James Rutherford took the role of Death – his forceful yet ultimately humane assumption complementing the title-role, in which Yvonne Howard (replacing an indisposed Sarah Connolly) responded with fearlessness but also compassion; Robert Murray likewise conveying the heroic vulnerability of Satyavān as he succumbs to then escapes death via the intercession of Sāvitri. Choral and instrumental forces responded ably to Nicholas Collon’s direction, using the spatial possibilities of Symphony Hall’s acoustic to telling effect, but it was a pity that dimmed house-lights made it impossible to follow the succinct yet detailed libretto which was otherwise not always audible. Maybe surtitles could have been provided?

It would be an unlikely all-Holst concert as did not feature The Planets, which duly followed the interval. Collon presided over a performance which, while it offered few revelations, still did justice to the power and originality of this music. Mars evinced a brooding implacability through to those seismic closing bars, then Venus brought eloquence without sentimentality and a solace that was never cloying. Mercury was nimble and quick-witted, not least in the hectic approach to its close, and the only partial disappointment (as so often in this work) was Jupiter, whose outer sections were a shade unsubtle rhythmically, the indelible melody at its centre haltingly paced.

Saturn went much better – Collon alive to the gaunt solemnity of its opening pages and the monumental climax, the final section effortlessly combining radiance and resignation. Nor was there any lack of impetuousity in the goings-on of Uranus, the martial episode reaching a heady culmination (its organ glissando finely integrated into the texture) and wrathful final climax not pre-empting the stillness around it.

Following-on without pause, Neptune rounded-off this reading with a fitting evocation of the ethereal – the CBSO Youth Chorus now placed high in the Symphony Hall auditorium so its role was wholly audible yet, in keeping with Holst’s conception, poised on the intangible.

For more information on future CBSO concerts head to their website

Under the surface – Introit: The Music of Gerald Finzi (Decca)

finzi-introit

Composer: Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)

Nationality: English

What did he write? Finzi’s output is slender but there are reasons behind that – not least the fact he lost his father, teacher and three brothers all at the age of eighteen. This compilation reinforces his reputation as a miniaturist, capable of producing some exquisite pieces of around five or ten minutes in length. This is rather unfair, as his vocal writing and works for soloist and orchestra reveal a composer of much greater substance.

Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality are the vocal works of choice, while there are concertos for cello and clarinet that are worth exploring. On a smaller scale Finzi loved setting the words of Thomas Hardy, with A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain two fine song cycles for voice and piano.

What are the works on this new recording? This is an anthology of Finzi’s shorter works from the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon. It concentrates on the string orchestra, his principal means of expression. A Severn Rhapsody, Prelude and Romance are all originals, as is the Eclogue for piano and orchestra, while Mike Sheppard, Paul Mealor and Patrick Hawes contribute specially commissioned arrangements that give extra prominence to saxophone (Amy Dickson) and horn (Nicolas Fleury).

The disc, headed by the beautiful artwork How bravely autumn paints upon the sky by Edward McKnight, celebrates the composer’s 60th anniversary in collaboration with The Finzi Trust.

What is the music like? Finzi’s music is like a late summer evening – often beautiful to the ear, but with creeping shadows in the background that make their presence felt in a subtle but meaningful way. These shadows are found especially in the yearning Romance and Prelude, and the consoling but darkly shaded Eclogue.

There is a lot of slow music here, perhaps reflecting the fact that Finzi’s shorter works are often at a slower tempo. As a result they do not give us every aspect of the composer’s output. It does however show how his writing for string orchestra is almost without equal in 20th century English music – fans include Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy – and it also shows how, in works like the Romance and the livelier Rollicum-Rorum especially, he could pen a memorable tune.

The Introit for violin and orchestra also has a good tune, and is sweetly performed by soloist Thomas Gould, while Rollicum-Rorum is sensitively played by Dickson, who shows impressive agility too.

What’s the verdict? This is a compilation that has clearly been put together with love, care and attention, but there is not as much variety as there could be. Finzi comes across here as relatively one-dimensional, and well-played though the performances are, it feels like an opportunity only partially taken.

Give this a try if you like… the lighter side of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius

Listen

Watch the album trailer below:

You can also listen to an excerpt from the disc on Spotify: