Kings Place’s “London Unwrapped” season launch felt somewhat ironic, with London actually still under wraps. Yet the Aurora Orchestra players’ imaginative programme brought real hope, especially in the opener, Thea Musgrave’s Light at the End of the Tunnel for solo viola. This BBC Radio 3 commission sees our pandemic journey as a tunnel, and whilst the viola begins full of despair and agitation, a high sustained E harmonic provides the light ahead. Gradually, the soloist is calmed, leading to a hopeful resolution. It is strikingly moving, and Aurora violist Ruth Gibson commanded the empty stage, a resonant cry of anguish contrasting with the glassy harmonics in this fleeting miniature.

Elena Urioste plays The Lark Ascending
© Nick Rutter

In Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro, harpist Sally Pryce was impressive in the extensive solo passages, the close microphones allowing her to contrast dramatic sweeps with extreme delicacy and pianissimo detail. With subtly blended flute and clarinet duets and sumptuous strings, this was a warm and luxurious performance.

Anna Meredith’s unsettling but brief Music for Ravens has its ghostly birds scratching and fluttering throughout. With obsessive repetition, harmonic slides, glassy bridge playing, viola twangs and cello fingerboard slapping, Meredith packs a lot in here, before it all flutters away to nothing. Definitely disquieting, and the Aurora players’ intensity and command of the complexity was impressive.

Sally Pryce
© Nick Rutter

It was refreshing to hear Vaughan Williams’s overexposed The Lark Ascending performed in Iain Farrington’s new arrangement for 11 players, with Elena Urioste joining the Aurora players. Vaughan Williams produced a version for 16, so this goes just a little further – far enough to allow for social distancing on the Kings Place stage. Gone are oboe, bassoon and horn – instead, the harp is employed to fill out the texture. This works well on the whole, although the strings couldn’t always hide the joins in the sustained accompaniment, with the odd seam showing. The harp does some heavy lifting to fill out the textures in places, but the pared back feel worked well. Urioste’s solo was sweet, effortless and relaxed, with breathy tone at the start of the solo passage in the lower registers, gradually warming up as the lark rises higher and higher, with a naturalistic rhythmic flexibility.

Aurora Orchestra plays Mendelssohn's Octet
© Nick Rutter

Tom Service’s introductions throughout radiated enthusiasm and positivity, but he really needed a monitor or sightline of the stage, to know when to stop “filling” (as he candidly admitted). And the fixed camera trained on Urioste for the Vaughan Williams either needed resetting, or subsequent players needed clearer marks – in the Mendelssohn we mostly saw the back of the first violin’s music stand. The range of other camera angles was a little odd too, with some rather uncomfortably full-on close-ups and strange angle shots. In a live concert, our gaze would be free to wander where we choose, but well-chosen camera shots are key to an engaging online experience.

However, the Mendelssohn Octet was a joy from beginning to end. With most players standing, their performance was full of exhilarating life and energy. Their opening Allegro moderato had pace and warmth, and the sense of excitement in their lead into the recapitulation was almost unhinged with enthusiasm. The slow movement’s rising suspensions were lovingly expressive, and the Scherzo was full of mystery and playfulness. The finale was a masterclass in joyous performance, with constant communication and clear delight as the fugal ideas were passed around. As Mendelssohn stipulates, the dynamic range here was indeed symphonic, and in response to the concert’s opening, the ecstatic conclusion did indeed deliver a glorious light at the end of the tunnel.

This performance was reviewed from the Kings Place video stream