Aurora Orchestra are renowned for their adventurous programmes, and this concert is one of three under the rubric of ‘Orchestral Theatre’ that they will present at the Southbank Centre this season. The first half of this “Smoke and Mirrors” programme began with the year 1816, the so-called “year without a summer”. The cataclysmic eruption of the island of Krakatoa created a volcanic winter that saw climate abnormalities across the globe, including blotting out the summer sunlight. It was also the year that Mary Shelley holidayed on Lake Geneva and began composing her Gothic masterpiece Frankenstein, as part of a competition with Lord Byron and John Polidori to write something spine-chillingly ghostly. The literal darkness is a handy figure for the pessimistic vision of human ambition and drive that Shelley and her contemporaries explored, a counter-enlightenment gloom about the scope of reason and knowledge.

Nicholas Collon, Marcus Farnsworth and the Aurora Orchestra © Nick Rutter
Nicholas Collon, Marcus Farnsworth and the Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter

The concert opened with Schubert’s Der Wanderer, composed that year, setting a poem of Georg Philipp Schmitt in one of his most distant and estranging songs, opening with treading dissonances in the piano that set the teeth on edge. Marcus Farnsworth is well-known as an exponent of experimental and contemporary vocal music, particularly Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, but here he acquitted himself as a fine recitalist, with a balance of darker hues and lyrical fragility. But this was no ordinary performance: the stage was wreathed in dry ice and lit with a ghostly blue hue as Farnsworth emerged from darkness in 19th-century Byronic garb, delivering his performance from the conductor’s rostrum, like Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Over the Sea of Fog

Aurora’s musicians then crept into the gloom, carrying lanterns, and we segued directly to HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!, a 1979 “pandemonium” for chansonnier and ensemble, which features a wild battery of percussion and box of toy instruments. Gruber’s text is taken from poems by HC Artmann, themselves twisted versions of children’s rhymes, and offer darkly comic, perverse send-ups of superheroes (Superman), figure from pop culture (John Wayne) and gothic monsters (Dracula). 

<i>Frankenstein!!</i> © Nick Rutter
© Nick Rutter

It’s a work characterised by dizzying shifts of stylistic gear and a hall-of-mirrors sense of fun and foreboding, drawing from Eight Songs for a Mad King and Walton’s Façade in equal measure. Farnsworth’s vocal and dramatic agility were tested considerably over the work’s half-hour duration, and well supported by the musicians of Aurora, who were themselves a dynamic part of the action. In each number Farnsworth would return to the dressing-up box at the front of the stage and find something to dress his instrumentalist colleagues in: the whole ensemble became, as the work progressed, a madcap extension of his fractured consciousness. Conductor Nicholas Collon even got his own pair of red pants. 

I’m not sure how much we needed dry ice to set the mood for Part Two. Thanks to the atmospherics of the first half the connections between the heroic darkness of Schubert and Gruber and the desperate triumph of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony were quite clear. But this was a fierce and focused account, with a lean and unfussy approach to tempi throughout. Aurora opt for a blend of period stylings (restrained vibrato, tap-tuned timpani) with modern instruments. Freeing musicians from their written parts certainly imparts a frisson of excitement which goes beyond a kind of ghoulish anxiety that they might lose their way: players seem more animated, picking up each other’s cues, and stimulating the electrical connections of the ensemble. 

Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra play Beethoven 5 from memory © Nick Rutter
Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra play Beethoven 5 from memory
© Nick Rutter

The first two movements perhaps emphasised immediacy of attack and dynamic contrast over a greater sense of the symphony’s architecture, but the scherzo and finale were simply thrilling, with heady heroism from trombones and horns. The highly theatrical positioning of the ensemble – piccolo raised on a platform, trombones looming from the back – intensified the drama of Beethoven’s score, and they were rewarded with an ovation at the end. In a literal coup de théâtre the orchestra reprised the final moments of the symphony as an encore, but scattered amongst the audience, so that we could all experience what it is like to be embedded in a professional orchestra.

This year Aurora supplements conventional programme notes with a short book, Collected Stories, handed out at their concerts, each offering a wry, lyrical vignette about each concert in their London season. The stories are written by Kate Wakeling, Aurora’s Writer-in-Residence. Some may baulk at perceived pretentiousness, but these narratives make a refreshing and distinctive change from the technical or historical exposition we find in conventional programme notes. They also represent one of Aurora’s ambitions and achievements, asking us to make different kinds of connections between the diverse works they programmes, and between different art forms altogether.