In just twelve years, Nicholas Collon’s Aurora Orchestra has established itself as a leading light on the increasingly crowded chamber orchestra scene. So what is the Aurora Orchestra’s USP? They say they aim to “challenge expectations of what an orchestra can and should do on stage”, and this chiefly consists of using memorised performance – performing symphonies and more without sheet music. Just a gimmick? Well, experience of their performances to date has led to the conclusion that this is definitely not the case. Performing such substantial orchestral music from memory requires a high level of commitment and dedication from the players, and the resulting performance has a life and energy that is rarely seen in this repertoire, as well as a frisson of danger (will they remember it all, will someone forget to come in?). So for the fourth year in the row, they were back at the Proms, this time choosing the giant of symphonies, Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, as their centrepiece.

Nicholas Collon conducts the Aurora Orchestra © BBC | Sarah Jeynes
Nicholas Collon conducts the Aurora Orchestra
© BBC | Sarah Jeynes

Another aspect of the Aurora Orchestra doing things differently is including informative ‘deconstructions’ of the music within a concert programme. They are not the first ensemble to do this, but do so with a light touch and engaging approach. So tonight’s Prom began with an introduction to the Beethoven, with live excerpts from the orchestra. Tom Service and Nicolas Collon made a good double act, achieving a careful balance of avoiding patronising the more knowledgeable in the audience, at the same time as providing entertaining insights into some of the mechanics of this great of the symphonic repertoire. Inevitably in a short time span this was a whistle-stop tour of the four movements. However, they made good use of some stage choreography, bringing sections and soloists to the front and illuminating the finale’s fugal section by positioning the players in a huge arc, and even managed some audience participation for the finale’s proto-theme. Some well-drilled foot-stamping from the orchestra served well to demonstrate Beethoven’s unsettling radically offbeat rhythms.

The transition from this light-hearted opening to the intensity of Strauss’ Metamorphosen which followed jarred ever so slightly however. Its place in the programme made perfect sense, given its deep connection to Beethoven via the Eroica’s Funeral March theme, but its mood was rather out of kilter with the prevailing high energy, joyful spirit of the rest of the programme. Composed at the end of the Second World War, the subject of this deeply personal In Memoriam (Strauss’ own inscription on the manuscript) lament is uncertain. Is it the bombing of Munich, the loss of Germany as a whole, Beethoven, or all of these that Strauss is mourning?

The Aurora Orchestra at the Proms © BBC | Sarah Jeynes
The Aurora Orchestra at the Proms
© BBC | Sarah Jeynes

With its richly complex writing for 23 strings, Strauss combines fragile solo lines with moments of full combined passion to heartbreaking effect. The orchestra (understandably not from memory here) gave a heartfelt performance of the work, with a strong unified sense of purpose, as well as commanding solos from many of the players, the orchestra’s leader Lisanne Soeterbroeke deserving particular mention. However, as strong as a performance as this clearly was, the RAH acoustic was against them, and from the Stalls, it felt strangely distant, almost in another room, and lacking the intensity needed. No doubt the radio and TV broadcast will have picked this up much better, and Promenaders front and central may report a more intimate experience.

Their Beethoven, however, was full of fizz, energy and infectious spirit, one of the most vivid live performances of this symphony I have experienced. From the opening bars onwards, the ensemble was sharp and the sense of commitment from Collon and the players was palpable. Beethoven’s ubiquitous sforzandos (sudden accents) had bite, the horns were bright and clear, the strings lithe and fleet of foot, and Collon elicited the tiniest pianissimos as well as emphatic and joyful fortes from his players. The hunting horns in the Scherzo were tight and full of spirit, and they rose above the texture gloriously in the slow movement. All the performers exuded enjoyment and focus, the wind players swaying almost in unison at times. Apart from only the slightest of hesitations in a few entries in the slow movement, this was an impressive feat of memory. Yet it was so much more than a memory test for the sake of it – this was truly live in every sense. When that opening theme of the finale came, there was an added comic feel after the audience participation deconstruction from earlier in the evening. The players were clearly exhilarated with the result, and the well-deserved audience response, and it was particularly nice to see them congratulating each other. This was a great achievement all round, and one only wonders (and looks forward to) seeing what they will tackle next year.