It was with hushed anticipation that the audience descended upon the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday afternoon. The Aurora Orchestra, having already shown their ability to perform Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor from memory at last year’s proms, had promised to deliver bigger, better and harder to remember: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. Once again prommers were left wondering, “Can it be done?”.

Francesco Piemontesi © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Francesco Piemontesi
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Before these questions could be answered, the audience was thrust into a sound-world that was quite removed from that of Beethoven. Brett Dean’s own Pastoral Symphony made a return to the hall it was premiered in 15 years ago. In this symphony, Dean decries society’s acceptance of environmental destruction in favour of consumerist culture. The work has projected onto it a narrative, which is cemented by the live triggering of electronic samples: birdsong, a tree being cut down, a plane zooming overhead and a cinematic thump to signify the death of the natural world. The piece had a clear teleology, and the juxtaposition of contrasts was well judged. The work would have benefited from additional strings; in their somewhat reduced scoring they weren’t able to take the foreground when required. The performance was gutsy, if a little rough and ready.

As this raw, tragic soundscape subsided, the audience prepared for Mozart’s more reserved Piano Concerto no. 26 in D major. The opening movement’s orchestral introduction was crisp, and it was evident that considerable effort had gone into cultivating a quasi-period instrument gloss to the string sound. Francesco Piemontesi’s tone colour was clear, sweet and even. Octaves were well balanced between hands, but at times bass lines could have been more present. Sudden changes to minor keys were a little lacking in impetus and there was the inclusion of a celeste, courtesy of Christian Zacharias' quirky cadenza.

The second movement was light with sensitive accompaniment from the strings. Piemontesi gave the scalic rise and falls a lovely arc, and the melodic ornamentation a characterful flair. Collon pushed the orchestra attacca into the final movement and here, for the first time in the concerto, there was huge dynamic contrast. Unfortunately there were also ensemble problems, and a mismatching of articulations between lower strings and lower winds, and again of phrasing between soloist and orchestra. Overall however, Piemontesi was practically faultless, playing with elegance and virtuosity. As his encore he brought forth the “Duetto” from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, a wonderful jewel. Piemontesi gave Mendelssohn a porcelain beauty, and the piano truly sang wonderfully voiced melodies.

After the interval it was away from aristocratic Vienna and off to the grimy Victorian London. Anna Meredith Smatter Hauler saw clever uses of stage-lighting, and was impressively performed from memory by the Auroras and BBC Youth Proms Ensemble. The piece started with two layers: a murky chorale with bitty sound materials overlaid on top. This “smatter” was thrown around the stage, being panned left and right. The piece had a bubble-gum pop feel to it, with funky riffs, grooves and classic four-to-the-floor bass drum beats. At times the grooves weren’t tight enough but the performers’ youthful vigour more than compensated for any rhythmic imprecision.

Aurora Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Aurora Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After this brief prelude it was time to hurry back to Vienna, but this time to the countryside. As the orchestra assembled on stage, expectations were heightened as we waited to see whether the Auroras could pull off their latest stunt. The string sound was like that for the Mozart concerto but fuller, this time with more support from the bass. The oboe’s golden tone glistened whilst accompanied by bagpipe-like drones. The movement had finesse, and the tempo was pulled around with delightful swagger. The second movement babbled away, and at the apex flute, clarinet and oboe worked together to create three sublimely rich bird calls that fed off each other’s boisterous activity.

The third movement saw the out-of-time village band driven on at a feverish tempo, with punchy horns, and astounding clarinet figuration. Plucky strings ripped into the trio whipping up a frenzy. It was only a shame that the start of each return to the minuet wasn’t quite together. The movement boasted wonderful solo playing, especially in the horn. The transition into the storm was terrifying, and the sudden cut in texture down to a low D flat was well executed and deeply unsettling. The finale did not leave the audience unfulfilled, and we were treated to fantastic sudden contrasts, graceful semiquavers, and luscious suspensions. Performing from memory seemed to release the orchestra, allowing them to move as one, with completely unified trajectories and sentiments.

Throughout the concert Nicholas Collon and leader Thomas Gould shone like bright lights. It was clear to see that their conviction was an inspiration to all on stage. The public should be on the lookout for whatever this young and innovative orchestra does next.

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