Over the last decade the Aurora Orchestra under the guidance of conductor Nicholas Collon have made their mark as one of the most enterprising ensembles, possessing a fresh and distinctive approach to concert formats and programmes. Their only appearance at this year’s Proms saw them consolidate this reputation, extending their focus on playing works entirely from memory. It is a trend they started last year with their performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, and Prom 22 saw them go one step further with a similarly ambitious memorised performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6.
It also confirmed that while they excel in performing new music, they are equally adept at handling some of the heavyweights, the programme also featuring Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26. They also managed to insert yet another angle into this concert – namely the contrasting of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with that of Brett Dean.
It is the latter which opened the concert and proved it is only really pastoral in name. It may begin by celebrating nature and specifically the birdsong of Australia (from where Dean originates) but soon these are supplanted by concerns over environmental destruction and the well-being of the planet. The opening is defined by the detail and precision found in the birdsong before it moves in darker, more turbulent directions. Small tectonic percussive breaks signal a shift towards a more pessimistic, downcast mood. It’s a highly effective piece that conveys the sense of threat and potential loss (with the Aurora Orchestra playing with a suitably heightened alertness).
In comparison, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26 (being performed at the Proms for the first time since 1974) sounds as if from an altogether less troubled world and exerted something of a cleansing effect after the anguish of Dean’s Pastoral Symphony. The Aurora Orchestra played it with eloquence, especially evident in the musical interplay surfacing between pianist Francesco Piemontesi and the orchestra in the second movement. Collon provided some delicate additional touches from the celesta before Piemontesi returned to play an encore of Duetto from Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words.
Next, members of the Proms Youth Ensemble joined members of the Aurora Orchestra on stage for the world premiere of Anna Meredith’s Smatter Hauler, all positioned in small groups towards the back of the stage. It was the first piece of the evening to be performed from memory.The dominating visual presence of percussion gave the impression it could be an explosive five minutes but, while what followed could not be described as subtle, it was not quite the all-out drum bombardment that it could have been. The influence of dance and movement is clear in the rhythms and openness of the piece. It is a concise musical statement but it felt as though the impact could have been greater had the piece been able to develop over a longer period of time.
There was a sense of excitement in the hall as the full Aurora Orchestra returned to the stage without any scores. What followed was an invigorated, liberated performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the length and complexity of the symphony making their achievement all the more remarkable. There was a liveliness and energy running through all five movements, and Collon was a quietly and gently steering presence throughout, ensuring no difficulties in traversing the dynamic shifts of the symphony. The final movement seemed even more emotive than usual, as the realisation that they have succeeded begins to sink in. The end was greeted in celebratory fashion, a vociferous reception ringing out from the hall as embraces were exchanged on stage. With vivacious, fearless playing like this, the reputations of the Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon are set to soar even higher.