Aurora Orchestra pride themselves on performances that push the boundaries of the traditional concert-hall experience. This was exactly what they delivered at Kings Place on Saturday, so much so that the only way I could have enjoyed this performance more is if I’d been in a venue where I’d been able to get up and dance.

Nicholas Collon © Benjamin Ealovega
Nicholas Collon
© Benjamin Ealovega

Billed as a “Road Trip” across America, there was a bluegrass flavour running through the evening, which treated us to works by seminal 20th- and 21st-century composers performed alongside arrangements of traditional and contemporary songs.

Perhaps the only piece that didn’t quite fit the narrative was the concert opener, Elliott Carter’s Retracing V. The Retracings are a set of solo miniatures; the fifth, for trombone, is taken from the solo in Double Trio. However, in a concert with no other solo performance, it seemed an odd choice. Regardless, Matthew Gee’s masterful range of timbres created a wistful introduction to the concert.

Relaxed Groove, the first movement John Adams’ Road Movies followed. Described as a “relaxed drive down a not unfamiliar road”, violinist Thomas Gould and pianist John Reid initially sounded a little too technically proficient, before growing into the folky energy the piece needed. By the end it had the “total whimsy” Adams intended.

After this we headed to Nova Scotia, with an arrangement of traditional melody Dusky Meadows for a small string ensemble. Slow, low strings induced a sense of dusk falling, before we reeled into a Celtic party, full of energy and vigour. I was already impressed at the ensemble tuning of rapid passages in octaves, at which point Max Baillie swapped his viola for a banjo, on which he performed a solo cadenza. While not entirely accurate, it was utterly charming, and the entire group looked like they were enjoying themselves immensely.

At this point Nicholas Collon turned to the audience to introduce special guest, Dawn Landes. Landes’ music continued the bluegrass feel, with Dig Me A Hole expanded by Iain Farrington’s exquisite arrangement. Her lower notes weren’t entirely there, but her lovely sweet tone carried a real sense of longing for the country, which the strings exploited in equal measure in Farrington’s arrangement. Idumea (Am I Born To Die?) is a traditional Southern tune, from the Sacred Harp songbook, designed for a cappella community singing. Nico Muhly’s arrangement was sparkling, but Landes sadly lacked the lung capacity for the long melodic lines.

The first half was rounded off with more Adams, this time his Chamber Symphony. Described as Schoenberg meets Looney Tunes, it is a piece with huge technical challenges. Aurora made it look like child’s play from the very first note. Independent instrumental lines weaved together seamlessly in “Mongrel Airs” under Collon’s confident baton, building up the tension with canonic entries until the abrupt cut-off. “Air with Walking Bass” sounded surprisingly Bachian, building up layers then stripping them down again. “Roadrunner” erupted into life as abruptly as “Mongrel Airs” had finished, with nods to Bernstein. Gould’s cadenza was dazzling, and the orchestra pulsed with relentless energy to the very end.

Dawn Landes rejoined the orchestra at the start of the second half, which opened with her song Home. Described as a homeless song, once more a sense of longing rang through, and I was reminded of Sarah McLachlan during its plaintive waltz.

This segued into “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”, the third of Charles Ives’ Three Pieces from New England. Inspired by a walk Ives took with his wife on their honeymoon in 1908, it uses the hymn tune “Dorrance” to underpin scenes of a misty river in the afternoon. The muted, high strings of Aurora captured the sultry mist perfectly as the lower strings invoked the slow flow of the river.

The Brown Girl is taken from Muhly’s music for the ballet Two Hearts. Landes’ voice was much better suited to this traditional arrangement, with her sweet tone throwing a sharp relief on the dark tale of a love triangle. It ended with a deconstructed music-box ending from the orchestra that was particularly affecting.

There was a change in the running order at this point, as we were treated to the première of Muhly’s arrangement of Hearts and Bones by Paul Simon. This was another shimmering arrangement, and again well-suited to Landes’ sweet tone, although there were moments where her upper register felt forced.

In Appalachian Spring the orchestra dawned beautifully, before launching into lively reels, impassioned addresses and rich lush chorales. Timothy Orpen’s opening of the variations on Simple Gifts was beautifully judged, and the orchestra followed him in invoking pastoral scenes before closing the concert with a beautiful sunset.

****1