Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra play the Proms at St Judes
PUBLISHED: 10:14 17 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:14 17 May 2018
© Nick Rutter
Michael Church fires the starting gun on our coverage of the 2018 Proms at St Jude’s in Hampstead Garden Suburb featuring Nicholas Collon of the Aurora Orchestra
The opening night of this year’s Proms at St Jude’s should go with a bang: wall-to-wall Mozart, with Cedric Tiberghien as soloist in the Concerto No 13, and the Aurora Orchestra under its conductor Nicholas Collon playing the Symphony No 40 in G minor - from memory. This may be one of the orchestra’s party tricks, but it’s no less noteworthy for that, as Collon, who is also a pianist, points out. “When you learn a Chopin Ballade on the piano,” he says, “You have to work so hard on each bar that by the time you’ve got on top of where your fingers should go, you’ve basically memorised it anyway – so memorising it is not an extra job. But the process with an orchestra is much harder, in that you have to memorise the rests, which can be very long, and the unadorned musical lines can be hard to learn, because they are sometimes incredibly boring.”
So how do they do it?
“It varies from player to player. Some do it with the instrument in their hands, like actors learning their lines, or getting the muscle-memory under their skin. Others do it away from their instruments, just looking at the score. Each player finds their own way.”
Whose idea was this?
“Mine,” he replies. How was it received? “Well, we weren’t at all sure it was going to work, and the first time we did it, it was scary.” Will they take the next logical step, and get rid of their conductor too? He gives a slightly nervous laugh: “You never know!” They now have seven symphonies – by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms – in their memory-bank, and they’ll add Shostakovich’s Ninth for the BBC Proms.
The night after its performance at St Jude’s, this orchestra will give the same programme for the opening of a new hall in Paris. They now play eighty concerts a year, and have notched up some notable awards; they are also about to settle in at the South Bank Centre as a resident band for the Queen Elizabeth Hall. And in Collon’s view that is a jackpot: “I love the acoustic of that hall - it’s the best chamber venue in London.”
But he agrees with Simon Rattle’s grim assessment of the acoustic at the neighbouring Festival Hall: “If you play a Mozart Symphony there, the sound just gets lost. It’s a terrifying place in which to perform – you’re so exposed, it doesn’t give you anything back.”
Collon’s trajectory so far has been unusually smooth. He first got the conducting bug when as a 10-year-old violist he found himself mesmerised by the sound of the brass in the Prelude to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger:
“All I wanted to do was turn my back on the conductor and watch the brass players behind me.”
He went to Cambridge on an organ scholarship, not, he says, because he was a whizz on that instrument, but because he’d noticed that many conductors had started their careers that way: “I learned a huge amount playing for services four times a week, with professional choirs.”
And it was at Cambridge that he and his friend Robin Ticciati – also now a hot-shot conductor – hatched the idea for the Aurora. “We had no idea, when we devised the concept, that the orchestra would develop as it has.”
One reason why Collon and his band are enjoying such success lies in their open-ness to the huge repertoire waiting beyond the confines of the traditional classical core. Last month he took the helm in Radio 3’s excellent new series Inside Music, in which practitioners reveal the mechanics underlying works across the whole musical spectrum, and in the course of two hours he provided a fascinatingly eclectic sequence; as an explainer he had a light, accessible touch. Now 35, and still getting into his stride, this is a man to watch.
The Proms at St Judes runs from June 23 until July 1.