Aurora Orchestra play Beethoven from memory at the Albert Hall and Kings Cross
- Credit: Mark Allan
Monday’s outdoor concert is believed to be the first live ticketed performance of an orchestral symphony in the UK since lockdown and is a prelude to Thursday’s BBC Prom
Monday heralds a benchmark for Crouch End conductor Nicholas Collon - the first time he has lifted his baton before a live audience in more than six months - and the first live ticketed performance of an orchestral symphony in the UK.
But Aurora Orchestra’s Kings Cross performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony is a prelude to another unusual concert, playing a near empty Royal Albert Hall at the 2020 BBC Proms.
Once again they will play Beethoven from memory - with the inclusion of a new commission by Richard Ayres, which reflects upon his own hearing loss.
“It will certainly sound different acoustically without the usual 7,000 people,” says Collon.
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“I don’t know what it will feel like because I have never done it - depressing and uplifting at the same time probably. No applause at the end will be odd, but the Proms are a talisman and it’s great for the country that they have put together two weeks of wonderful live music every night. I was almost in tears when I watched the first one.” He calls Beethoven’s seventh “the most infectious, enthusiastic of all the symphonies, a rhythm fuelled romp from beginning to end. It’s great fun to play and uplifting to listen to, which is what we all need.”
As for Ayre’s “exciting and beautiful” piece, it riffs on the fascinating speculation of what Beethoven could and couldn’t hear and how it affected his work.
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“It uses electronic samples of viola solos that come through the orchestra and are distorted. A chunk is repeated as if Beethoven was listening on a gramophone and is what he might have heard. It’s taking all the confusion that hearing loss adds to your sense of social distance as the pieces become clouded and confused.”
Of both composers he adds that it’s “astonishing” how they work with hearing loss.
“I don’t understand how Evelyn Glennie plays percussion as well as she does with hearing impairment. God knows what it would have been like if Beethoven hadn’t suffered from that. Those works seem perfect you wouldn’t want to change them.”
The irony that Aurora Orchestra must stay distanced at 2.5metres in different loggias at the Albert Hall, then can go to the pub together afterwards, isn’t lost on him. Nor is the fact that continental concert halls have been open for months while ours remain empty.
“2.5 metre distances are destructive for the art of orchestra playing - you can’t have many live projects. We are playing outside in Kings Cross because it’s impossible to play anything that big inside, there will be sounds of life around us which you can’t avoid in London but we are very excited because there’s something special about a live audience and for all of us, it’s our first time performing in front of people since March.”
There are however more concerts this autumn as part of Aurora’s residency at Kings Place, and an album, Music of the Spheres, just out on Deutsche Grammophon.
But if things aren’t too bad for Collon, he fears for fellow musicians who are considering retraining.
“A high proportion of players have no salaried job and now have few performing opportunities. A lot fell through the cracks of government schemes. Even if we get some performances this autumn they are going to be small scale with 40 rather than 90 players.”
The father of three jointly started the orchestra in 2004 after leaving Cambridge, as a means of drawing together “a wonderful generation of players to play at a really high level.” When in 2014 they had to learn a “crazy piece for the Proms with the performers on click tracks moving around the space” it sparked further experimentation with a series of Mozart concerts.
“They couldn’t hear or see each other and had to play from memory. It was really fun and wonderful so we thought ‘what could we do next to experiment with playing from memory?’.
The preparation is “challenging” and involves months of learning music that is often unmemorable - fine if you are playing the melody, but a trumpet part between two notes is “a bit like learning binary code”.
The pay off for a player is “like seeing inside the composers head.”
And for him: “It’s having an orchestra that’s absolutely inside the piece. It brings different levels of communication between players and a physical and emotional freedom.”
For concert-goers it makes the experience “visual as much as aural”.
“It’s so moving and exciting for audiences to see musicians communicate with each other, and visually it’s a very different thing to have an orchestra not buried in our music stands looking at the notes.”
Aurora Orchestra play the West Handyside Canopy in King’s Cross on September 7 at 6pm and 8.15pm.
The BBC Prom is live on Radio 3 on September 10 and on BBC4 at 7.30pm.