tue 15/10/2019

Prom 72/3: Aurora Orchestra, Collon review – Berlioz not quite lost in showbiz | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 72/3: Aurora Orchestra, Collon review – Berlioz not quite lost in showbiz

Prom 72/3: Aurora Orchestra, Collon review – Berlioz not quite lost in showbiz

Stagey stunts but fine music in dramatised 'Symphonie fantastique'

French revolutions: the Auroras' Symphony FantastiqueAll images Mark Allan/BBC

For a few seconds last night, the Royal Albert Hall turned into London’s biggest – and cheesiest – disco. At the end of the Ball movement in the Aurora Orchestra’s dramatised version of the Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz’s tipsily lurching waltz climaxed in a lightshow that sent a galaxy of glitterball stars swirling through the auditorium. You can’t exactly stage a symphony – even one as theatrical as this – as you can an opera. Still, conductor Nicholas Collon and directors Jane Mitchell and James Bonas – abetted by designers Kate Wicks and Will Reynolds – did their utmost to make the work’s narrative line entertainingly visible.

For more than a decade, the enterprising Auroras have not only revitalised a stable of repretoire warhorses through their thrillingly alert, fully memorised performances. They have found fresh ways to make the familiar masterworks live in new ways for new audiences. Not every gambit they try will come off, of course. Last night saw a few missteps and longueurs. Crucially, though, the musical bedrock for their adventures never cracks. Both as an ensemble and in its solo voices, the Aurora – its forces swollen last night by guests who included the ace timpanist Antoine Siguré– sounded a stylish outfit even if you closed your eyes. With its heart-on-sleeve narrative design of a lovesick artist driven to despair, the wildly original symphony that Berlioz first wrote in the late 1820s to impress his indifferent beloved – Anglo-Irish Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson – packs in so much musical drama on its own account that further staging might seem superfluous. Unlike, say, a choreographer who extracts a narrative from the abstract musical architecture of Bach or Berg, Berlioz has written his story explicitly in both words and notes before the adapter gets to work. So the danger of pointless, over-literal illustration looms – a risk that, mostly, the Auroras and their stage team dodged in last night's Prom, even if I wasn’t wholly convinced by the portable lanterns that doubled as the houses of Paris. 

More problematic was the shift from the format of the music-education lecture with which Collon began – along with some so-so badinage with actor Mathew Baynton, who spoke Berlioz’s words and embodied his suffering artist – to the dramatised symphony itself. This prosy preamble could have been shorter, although Collon’s demonstration of how Berlioz evolves his ideé fixe love theme – as groups of instrumentalists entered to play the relevant passages – lucidly made its points. Having sold us the wonders of this “novel and magnificent” story-telling symphony that opened the road not just to Wagner’s operas but the Star Wars scores as well, Collon and Baynton didn't then lapse into silence and let the music do the rest of the talking. Each of the five movements had its own spoken introduction by Baynton too: superfluous, perhaps, though it’s always a pleasure to hear the tangy prose of Berlioz’s Memoirs.

These interruptions meant that the Auroras had to play in disconnected chunks. Luckily, they took charge of each of the five acts with utter conviction. Standing and scoreless, as usual, the orchestra also had to change shape according to the dramatic focus of each act: so the four (!) harps came front-stage for the Ball, while military drums (complete with uniformed drummers) faced the audience for the March to the Scaffold. In the pastoral adagio, meanwhile, onstage cor anglais (chapeau bas throughout to Patrick Flanaghan) duetted wistfully with the distant oboe (John Roberts) at the back of the hall. In spite of all this bustling movement, the players kept their focus.

Collon spun them through wide dynamic arcs of sound, making the most of some hall-shaking crescendos. He was never afraid either to put the brakes on tempi whose variations underlined every changing passion of the score. Watching over this frenetic action, an outsize French tricolore gave way in the country scene and afterwards to a vast projected moon, which turned a lurid blood-red for the witches’ sabbath of the finale. 

The band’s stiffest challenge came when, in that adagio, the lights dimmed as on a summer night and they had to play on a darkened stage, wearing little glowworm torches on their arms. When you wondered, do directorial wheezes turn into outright cruelty to orchestras? Yet they coped admirably. Led by Maia Cabeza, the Aurora strings have a fresh and fierce togetherness, with the all-important woodwind voices – including the E flat clarinet that impishly parodies the love theme in the closing danse macabre – full of wayward, eccentric character. The rudely raucous brass of the execution march and the nightmare orgy did their pungent bit (with Josh Cirtina a suitably droll bass trombone), while the platoon of percussionists added their doses of high drama. And, as the sepulchral Dies Irae in the brass collided with the kitsch reprise of the love motif at the witches’ sabbath, the fire and force of the Auroras’ tutti made you almost forget that the orchestra wore slightly ludicrous horned headgear for this movement.

Good fun, yes, but the music should scare us enough – as it did – to make fancy-dress costumes from some Hammer Horror-themed party irrelevant. So by no means every histrionic flourish worked. Collon and his creative team still deserve plaudits for the ingenious showbiz swagger they brought to this most stage-struck of symphonies. Above all, the music-making never lost its way even as the players traipsed around the hall. Berlioz, that supreme old ham, would have relished their commitment above all.

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