Raising the Curtain – Aurora Orchestra

Rain Coming
Gnarly Buttons
Bach, arr. Webern
Fuga 2 [The Musical Offering]
Secret Theatre

Timothy Orpen (clarinet)

Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon

Frederic Wake-Walker (director: Birtwistle)

Reviewed by: Gill Redfern

Reviewed: 9 March, 2007
Venue: Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London

As part of the Royal Academy of Music’s extensive series of events, the Aurora Orchestra, an ensemble-in-residence at the RAM, found itself competing for an audience on this evening not only with the rest of London’s wide variety of end-of-week cultural options, but also directly with a double-bill from the Academy’s own Opera School.

Whilst not quite performing to a full house, the numbers in the Duke’s Hall were more than respectable, an intriguing programme clearly providing sufficient incentive to experience this relatively recent addition to the UK’s selection of smaller orchestras, under Principal Conductor Nicholas Collon.

Their opening work saw the musicians seated in what transpired to be their most conventional arrangement of the evening. In Rain Coming, the distinctive soundworld of Toru Takemitsu was immediately conjured up, using the alto flute (played on this occasion with a gorgeously full tone by RAM graduate Jane Mitchell) alongside bowed vibraphone, and string writing reminiscent of the slow sections of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Within a well-judged dynamic range, the occasional short sections of increased activity felt revitalising rather than shocking and, throughout, it was apparent that the Aurora players were totally at home in the acoustic of the Duke’s Hall, with some beautifully blended string and wind playing.

The soloist in John Adams’s Gnarly Buttons (originally commissioned by the London Sinfonietta and premiered with Michael Collins) was recent RAM graduate Timothy Orpen. Standing on what would be described as the ‘wrong’ side of the conductor, Orpen captured the audience’s attention from the first note, with an extended opening section bringing to mind Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for clarinet solo.

Divided into three movements, the first (‘The Perilous Shore’) takes the opening solo clarinet motifs into every other instrumental part, gradually building the piece from a series of disparate, small chunks into a coherent whole. With an ensemble including two synthesisers, guitar, banjo and mandolin, Adams creates a soundworld that draws its sonic and compositional influences more from jazz and blues than traditional classical repertoire.

With a Reich-style keyboard continuo underpinning much of the music of this first movement, Collon provided clear direction for his players, resulting in some very tight ensemble playing. However, the sense of ensemble was perhaps even more noticeable in the second movement (‘Hoedown (Mad Cow)’), with an almost mechanical groove kept going between various members of the group. Understated, yet technically assured, clarinet-playing from Orpen glued the movement together, with the very loud ‘moo’ approximately two-thirds of the way through (from the title’s ‘Mad Cow’) a genuine shock to many members of the audience!

The final movement (‘Put Your Loving Arms Around Me’), brings with it a completely different sound. Starting as a simple song, with a sustained clarinet melody over repeated chords from piano and guitar, the harmony becomes increasingly dissonant and the playing-style more violent, with more and more players joining the fray. Descending into a ‘dance to the death’ reminiscent of the final section of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’, at one point, it was barely possible to hear the soloist above the complexity of the orchestral parts. And then, almost without warning, the texture changed back to that of the movement’s opening, and the piece faded to nothing.

Gnarly Buttons demands technical and musical virtuosity from its soloist and ensemble; Timothy Orpen and the Aurora Orchestra with Nicholas Collon were definitely up to the challenge.

After an interval during which the stage was substantially reorganised, the ensemble, gathered around a mute grand piano (in position for Secret Theatre), performed Webern’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s ‘Fuga 2’ from The Musical Offering. The spatial positioning of the musicians (standing up, where possible, and with two groups of sonically similar instruments, one each side of the stage) created a mesmeric stereo effect, with the players passing phrases of varying lengths backwards and forwards. Many fugues feel ‘busy’: this one was more relaxed, giving the music time to breathe and the players time to produce the clarity of line that they clearly enjoy.

The Bach was the perfect prelude to the main work of the evening, Harrison Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre. Opening with an extract from Robert Grave’s “Secret Theatre”, recited by Collon, the players approached the stage from the back of the hall and the rear of the platform. Musically, the piece is created by two ‘groups’ of players, the ‘cantus’ (melodic and linear) and the ‘continuum’ (accompanying and more fragmentary). The membership of each group is fluid, shown by the varying positions of each player throughout the piece.

Directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, the wind players’ calm (almost unnoticeable) movements during the first sections of the piece complemented the changing moods of the music, and were accompanied by simple coloured lighting. As the music became more agitated, so did the players’ motions, with dancing at one point, and the violinists eventually moving from the centre-stage string group to join the upper wind players. It feels almost unfair to single out individual musicians in this piece – all were equally integral to the work’s success – but particular mention must be made of Jocelyn Lightfoot (whose pure-toned, agile horn playing was a highlight of the whole concert) and Christopher Cooper (whose understated movements between his lonely positions as bassoonist and as contra-bassoonist complemented his exceptional playing of the high extremes of his instrument’s register).

Secret Theatre was a fabulous end to a thoroughly enjoyable concert: the Aurora Orchestra hopefully has a bright future.

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