“You take a trip, you wind up screaming at your own funeral.” Leonard Bernstein’s legendary description of the opium-fuelled drama of the Symphonie fantastique at one of his Young People’s Concerts in 1969 echoed in the air last night. The same combination of education and entertainment imbued Aurora Orchestra’s Proms performance, the last significant hurrah of the Berlioz 150 anniversary. Billed as an “orchestral theatre staging”, Aurora – playing the score from memory – gave us thrills, chills (and no spills) in a vivid reading… which they then repeated at the late night concert.

Mathew Baynton and Aurora © BBC | Mark Allan
Mathew Baynton and Aurora
© BBC | Mark Allan

It helped that conductor Nicholas Collon could pass for Hector Berlioz himself, flowing locks and outsized cuffs giving him a dandyish air. Amiably informal, Collon introduced the action, but it was left to actor Mathew Baynton – sadly not dressed as the composer – to read from Berlioz’ memoirs. The audience heard about his fixation with the actress Harriet Smithson – we’d call it stalking today – and how his symphony, subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist”, is pretty much an autobiographical account of his obsession. Given Harriet had ignored Hector’s love letters up to this point, a symphony depicting such passionate outpourings must have been alarming. But it worked. Harriet finally heard the Fantastique in 1832, realised Berlioz’ genius and they were married the following year. You couldn’t make it up.

Members of the orchestra, carrying illuminated white paper houses, created the rue de Richelieu, where Berlioz took an apartment so he could spy on Harriet’s whereabouts. Collon then illustrated the idée fixe, whose score ran along the screen at the back of the platform, and the audience provided their own internal punchline before Collon reached the end of his viola joke.

Nicholas Collon and Aurora Orchestra © BBC | Mark Allan
Nicholas Collon and Aurora Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

But what of the performance itself? I’ve been sceptical about the “standing/playing from memory” wheeze before, but here it really added something to the drama, emphasising the staggering modernity of what Sir Roger Norrington has called “the first truly Romantic score in history”. The choreography would have been impaired by music stands, not to mention the staging’s peripatetic aspects: four harps wheeled into a prime spot for the waltz, dancing amid spinning glitterballs; a lonely cor anglais pined across the Arena, echoed by an oboe stationed behind the Prommers; and four judgmental bassoons flanked Collon to lead The March to the Scaffold. The entire orchestra donned white animal masks for the Witches’ Sabbath, the stage flooded in demonic red lighting.

Aurora Orchestra © BBC | Mark Allan
Aurora Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

Musically, the performance was both sensitive and gripping. Initially, Collon was in no rush, allowing the string lines of the idée fixe to sigh longingly and making sure nobody stepped on their partners’ toes in the ball. The French tricolore draped across the organ rose to unveil a giant moon for a beautifully paced Scène aux champs, tiny lights fixed to the players’ wrists making Aurora appear as glow-worms. Timpani thundered, bassoons grumped and growled with menace and the strings’ spiccato in the finale spat with venom. Aurora’s performance was a triumph, a wacky, psychedelic ride. Truly Berlioz on acid.

*****