Let’s hear it for the face-slap of live music. How we’ve missed its invigorating delights! A finely honed orchestral performance by a crack collective of string players – even when there are only 15 of them – can make the blood pump and tears flow. Nicholas Collon knows this, and the delight with which he introduced his concert in the glowing acoustic of King’s Place showed he couldn’t wait to regale us.

Allan Clayton
© Nick Rutter | Aurora Orchestra

Before the boss appeared, though, 12 of his Aurora Orchestra instrumentalists had taken the stage without him to deliver a striking performance of Kate Whitley’s 2018 Autumn Songs. It’s a convincingly cogent piece, fluid, melodic and gracious, and it deserves a wide circulation. The invention with which the young composer deploys her modest forces across its ten short minutes augurs well for her flourishing career (she already has an LSO commission under her belt among several other significant achievements). Effects like the insect-like plunges of autumnal sound that open the piece strike the ear as powerfully as the balmy lyrical section that follows. Later, Whitley’s use of cellos and double bass to stabilise the freewheeling upper strings as they dart and shimmer is an inspired touch.

Once the conductor and his full Aurora complement had packed the platform, Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings dispensed that aforementioned slap. Collon wrought a big sound from his small band in a score that’s often the province of larger symphony orchestra string sections, and nowhere was he more persuasive than in his clean articulation of the fugal section and in the expansive resonance of its contrapuntal development.

Nicholas Collon conducts Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter | Aurora Orchestra

It was harsh to programme such a masterpiece ahead of William Walton’s Sonata for String Orchestra, a four-movement transposition of a chamber work whose duration stretches to nigh on half an hour and, to these ears, outstays its welcome midway through a protracted Lento third movement. In construction the sonata frequently recalled the evening’s earlier Elgar – both works have a string quartet as their hub – but without the Introduction and Allegro’s succinctness or inspiration. As for that Lento, a foetid unease seemed to hang over it. Imagine Tennessee Williams underscored by Samuel Barber on an off day.

Pip Eastop
© Nick Rutter | Aurora Orchestra

Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, by contrast, is Benjamin Britten on a very good day indeed. Even the cycle's darker song settings are fun (the Lyke-Wake Dirge, for heaven’s sake!) while the young composer’s melodic and harmonic buoyancy bespeaks a 20-something genius flexing his creative muscles. Forget those po-faced tenors of yore; this is joyous music and Allan Clayton was just the man to deliver it. That Dirge was hair-raising, the Elegy (Blake’s The Sick Rose) a collective bend-and-sway experience shared by all – tenor, instrumentalists, conductor and the eloquent horn of Pip Eastop. Did the string accompaniment in the John Keats Sonnet (O soft embalmer…) inspire Leonard Bernstein when he composed West Side Story? At the hands of Collon and Clayton, even that seemed plausible.