The Aurora Orchestra continue to “challenge expectations of what an orchestra can and should do on stage”. Not content with performing works from memory, they are also exploring more “orchestral theatre”, as conductor Nicholas Collon describes it. Going beyond a simple theme – here, music with connections to the idea of the “Music of the Spheres”, Pythagoras’ theory of the sounds emitted by the solar system – they add lighting, animation, narration and simple staging to their performances, yet manage to avoid over-cluttering proceedings with unnecessary gimmickry.

The Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter

Max Richter’s Journey explores the idea of upward release and freedom from gravity, using straightforward rising lines and Pythagoras’ ratios to dictate the rhythmic speed of different instruments, rather reminiscent of Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten in reverse. The orchestra performed in the dark, with the backdrop of a starlit screen, and the occasional flash from the floor lighting, arranged to form the patterns of the ratios. A new commission for the orchestra, it provided a suitably starry opening to the evening, and the orchestra showed impressive command and ensemble, no mean feat with relatively little clear rhythmic pulse, in the dark and from memory!

Samuel West’s clear narration, with simple animation, briefly and effectively explained Pythagoras’ theory of the music of the spheres. It was not entirely clear how the explanation of intervals of octaves, fifths and fourths led into the Beethoven particularly, but the rendition of the slow movement from his String Quartet no. 8 in E minor by front desk players was warmly soft-toned and tender. It was Czerny’s assertion that Beethoven was inspired here by “contemplating the starry heavens and thinking of the music of the spheres”.

Pekka Kuusisto and the Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter

Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto is a striking presence and a soloist who clearly relishes in a collaborative process with other musicians. Thomas AdèsViolin Concerto, “Concentric Paths” is highly virtuosic and intense, with a lengthy central movement (“Paths”), flanked by two shorter, faster movements (“Rings” and “Rounds”). Orbits, spheres and circular motion clearly fitted the evening’s theme, and the insistent twisting motion of Kuusisto’s violin part was intertwined with intense orchestral textures. Adès enjoys exploring the upper registers and often pairs the violin at the top of the fingerboard with piccolo and flute, ringing, almost crying out in the first movement in particular. After many twists and turns and weighty thrashing chords from the full orchestra, the middle movement finally finds the path to calm, before dying away with jerky final gasps and scrapes. Kuusisto held these final dying moments, before the finale’s restlessly energetic dance took over. Collon handled fiendishly complex rhythms with apparent ease, and Kuusisto and orchestra were tightly locked together in perfect ensemble. As an encore, Kuusisto gave us Nico Muhly’s Material in E flat, from Drones and Violin Part 1. Over an orchestral drone, Kuusisto expertly threaded the improvisatory twisting line. Deservedly pleased with the audience response, Kuusisto gave us an enthusiastic thumbs up before leaving.

Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony was undoubtedly the evening’s climax, and it is hard to limit the superlatives in describing the orchestra's performance from memory. Fresh and sparky with electric energy, they launched in with immediately infectious joy. The communication between the players, released from the confines of chairs and music stands, was so evident, and the spontaneous “wow!” from an audience member at the end of the first movement felt entirely appropriate. The freedom showed on their faces and at times, in the slow movement’s ebb and flow, the whole orchestra moved inwards and outwards together as if a breathing body. Collon allowed himself some mischievousness, such as a cheeky pulling up before the first movement’s development section and a similar tempo tinkering towards the end of the Menuetto – not entirely faithful, but completely in the joyous spirit of feeling free to play with the music. This is clearly not the only way to perform Mozart, but I’m not sure I want to see it performed any other way for some time to come.

The Aurora Orchestra then moved to one side and disappeared into darkness as Sam Swallow took to the piano for a highly assured rendition of David Bowie’s Life on Mars, with the orchestra gradually joining in with an understated accompaniment, as the glitter ball lowered to add a starry finish. What could have felt cheesy actually felt totally in keeping with the joyful, playfulness of this uplifting evening of live (in every sense) music. Endless column inches are written on regular basis about how to keep audiences engaged and bring new punters into the concert hall: the Aurora Orchestra are just getting on with making it happen, and long may they continue.