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Poster, Cabeza, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place review – shock of the new | reviews, news & interviews

Poster, Cabeza, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place review – shock of the new

Poster, Cabeza, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place review – shock of the new

Musical quests through city and country for the roots of the modern

Birth of the blues: Nicholas Collon and the AurorasNick Rutter

Mozart’s piano concertos often overflow with good humour, but you seldom expect to hear a hearty chuckle from the audience in the middle of a performance of one. Yet something close to a guffaw burst out around King’s Place when soloist Tom Poster, deep into the last-movement cadenza of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 19 in F major, suddenly quoted Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Poster had played the Gershwin before the interval of this typically smart, eclectic and thought-provoking programme from the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon.

Its cheeky echo in the midst of Mozart’s drolly ingenious rondo reminded us that high-spirited innovation in music has always taken myriad forms. Saturday’s rich bill of fare set the Mozart down amid three 20th-century pieces that, all in their own way, respond to the clamour of modernity with wit, brilliance – and a touch of shock. Then, as if to assert that innovation thrives in the backwoods as well on the boulevards, a late-night “Lock-In” led by the Aurora’s leader Maia Cabeza spotlit the inspiration found in Eastern European folk music by the trailblazing composers of a century ago. 

For their first half, Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite and Rhapsody in Blue, the Auroras slimmed down into a dozen-strong chamber ensemble. They played arrangements of both pieces by their pianist Iain Farrington. The mutations of both works over time – above all, the endlessly-revised Gershwin – justify such flexibility of forces. And the clean, bright attack of the Aurora players, with each working as a sort of soloist, suited the Kings Place acoustic. Bartók, no less than Gershwin, paints the urban jungle in sound throughout his 1919 score for a sensational ballet of sex-and-violence on the mean streets. The jabs and squawks of strings and brass, the woozy bassoon and trombone glissandi, add a jazzy patina to his more ancient modal flavours. Meanwhile the final lurching, thunderous gallop – half Hungarian czárdás, half ragtime strut – felt here like the soundtrack to an Expressionist film nightmare. From there, in Collon and the Auroras’ company, it proved just a brisk step along the 1920s sidewalk to Gershwin, and Tom Poster’s joyously engaging reading of the Rhapsody (the pianist pictured below by Elena Urioste). Although this orchestra, well-known for standing up, did get to sit down at Kings Place, their stage configuration changed radically between one piece and another. Tom PosterFor the Gershwin, clarinettist Timothy Orpen sat in front for his – deliciously played – star turn at the outset, while the 20-odd instrumentalists more or less reproduced the size of the original Paul Whiteman Band at the 1924 New York premiere. Collon’s approach let us grasp, more forcefully than usual, the battle Gershwin stages between the extreme rubato swoons and digressions of the soloist – half-American blues singer, half-ghost of Romantic Russian pianism – and the metronomic hustle and tight discipline of the urban big-band sound behind. As Poster soared and swerved, his tempi luxuriously stretched and then snapped back into line, the soul of the blues (and, arguably, of the Russian musical past) seemed to prevail over the regimented, machine-age drive of the Whiteman style. That relentless metrical militarism was what Theodor Adorno had in mind when he notoriously attacked a limited idea of “jazz”. Collon refereed this iconic struggle for the mastery of rhythm with focus and agility.

But when does connection slide into confusion? Sometimes I heard too much of a Gershwin hangover in the Mozart concerto, as brisk and crisp as you could wish for, and with Poster both dashing and poised, suave and sure though never without that touch of merriment (or devilry). But in this compact hall the orchestral colours around him sometimes felt over-emphatic, luridly lacking in light and shade. There were some deeply satisfying solo contributions in the woods – Thomas Barber’s oboe, for instance, and Jane Mitchell’s flute. The final fugato had an exhilarating, nicely-controlled push and bounce. Especially in the middle-movement allegretto, though, Poster and the band erred (to my ears) a little too much on the side of jazzy extraversion. 

That said, their consistently blazing colours and pulsing rhythms came in more than handy for the closing work: Prokofiev’s First Symphony, his virtuoso pastiche of the Classical style. From the visceral punch of the opening string chords through the rude snort of the bassoon and the merry gurgles in the other woods, we knew that we were in for a treat. The periwigged clog-dance of the Gavotte has never felt more fun. And the strings raced through the madcap sprint of the finale with an effervescence that made the spirits soar (and again with some lovely solo work from oboe, bassoon and flute). Prokofiev worried that this movement’s sheer Mozartian “gaiety might border on the indecently irresponsible”. “Indecent irresponsibility” in the concert hall? Bring it on…

Always keen to refresh the format of their shows, the Aurora’s King’s Place gigs feature a post-concert “Lock-In”. A sort of club-like after-party, in a darkened auditorium with bar service and cushions on the floor, it allows the mood to chill a few degrees. With brief commentaries by Jane Mitchell – flautist turned MC – leader Maia Cabeza (pictured above) led a few colleagues in pieces by Bartók, Kodaly, Enescu and the Czech Erwin Schulhoff, all indebted to the folk music of Hungary, Romania and the adjoining lands. We even heard some of Bartok’s original field recordings. They were interspersed with performances – for instance, of a couple of his violin duos – that let us hear precisely how “folk” became “art” music in this period while never straying that far from its rustic roots. If Enescu’s “Airs in Romanian Folk Style” for solo violin stay thrillingly close to the soil, Bartók’s Rhapsody No. 2 for violin and piano takes its Transylvanian dance tunes on an exhilarating harmonic journey. Cabeza and friends (fiddler Jamie Campbell, cellist Sébastien van Kuijk and pianist John Reid) nicely balanced robustness and refinement, peasant grit and Modernist sophistication. It made for an hour of enlightening enjoyment, and flavourful proof that the musical breakthroughs of the 20th-century emerged from the sticks and well as the smoke. 

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