Prom 62: The Rite by Heart

Various Artists
A dramatic and musical exploration of Stravinksy’s The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring (performed from memory)

Jane Mitchel – concept and script
Anouar Brisset – projections
James Bonas – stage director
Karl Queensborough – actor
Charlotte Ritchie – actor

Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Colon

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 2 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

From the primeval darkness an eerie, reedy sound grows and oscillates. The lights gradually reveal a white-floored Royal Albert Hall stage littered with some white boxes, on one of which bassoonist Amy Harman stands, ululating the opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

In a Proms season that has me running out of superlatives – even just in the penultimate week of the Proms – Aurora raises the bar even higher. With Nicholas Collon, Aurora’s Proms performances from memory really do refresh parts of a concert hall that other orchestras cannot reach. That’s the literal truth, at this afternoon performance (the first of two), when for two encores players streamed from the stage to stand down the stairs from each door in the stalls and also into the arena to revisit parts of the chosen work in a live surround sound that probably doesn’t work as well on Radio 3 (on the evening relay) given the distance to the microphones. As Collon says ‘there’s nothing as thrilling as being inside the orchestra” and with his players unencumbered by parts and stands they can make the stalls at least hear from within. Quite simply, WOW!

Of course, Aurora and Collon have form: ten years’ worth, in fact, since they gave Mozart 40 from memory in 2014. Since then Jupiter has been committed to memory as have four symphonies by Beethoven (in order, PastoralEroica, No 7 – broadcast from an empty Royal Albert Hall during Covid in 2020 – and No 5), as well as Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony and Stravinsky’s 1945 Firebird

How to celebrate ten years of memorising music?  Go for the biggie, obviously, and The Rite of Spring it was, already run in from Aldeburgh via Helsinki, and here – as has become tradition – prefaced by a first half that helps explain the music, hence Amy Harman’s first rendition (today) of the famous high bassoon solo which starts the work. Actors Karl Queensborough and Charlotte Ritchie opened the well-curated 40 minutes or so of history and context, starting with some of the tall tales about the premiere in May 1913 of Stravinsky’s third ballet for Diaghilev, and joined by Collon himself who unpicked some of the musical secrets of this influential work. He even got the audience to clap four different rhythms underpinning The Dance of the Earth – including horn triplets and trumpet semiquavers, to interrogate the complexity of Stravinsky’s vision. We also got to count the 11 string and timpani chords that herald The Glorification of the Chosen Onetoo. Collon could spotlight various combinations which could be illustrated by grouping instruments differently on stage – and the players emulated Iván Fischer’s Budapesters by singing the Lithuanian folk tune that Stravinsky manipulated to fashion the very opening. The actors pieced together the long gestation period of the work, and his collaboration with designer Nicholas Roerich, who worked on the scenario with Stravinsky. From Stravinsky’s many reminiscences, we heard his shock about how slow the dances wanted his music and Ian Farrington was on hand to enliven the tale of Stravinsky taking his seat at the piano stool and playing how fast he wanted the music to go.

Invigorating in itself, with a concept by the orchestra’s Jane Mitchell and directed with a fluent ease by James Bonas, the ‘living programme note’ of the first half of the concert was a mere taster for the second half: a complete performance from memory, everyone save cellos and basses standing.

To say it was electrifying seems damning with faint praise. It was utterly exhilarating, and as convincing a performance I’ve ever heard (and there have been many, especially at the Proms). Whether enhanced by the introduction to the piece or the nature of the standing players unencumbered by parts and music stands, this performance thrilled both the ear and the eye. One stray brass entry seemed entirely understandable amidst the collective feat of musical memory and prowess and the audience response was ecstatic, and certainly more unanimous than the original audience in May 1913.

I wonder where Aurora will go next in committing music to memory. I hope the Proms will be the place they do it.

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