Why Birds Sing. A Remarkable Musical Exploration with the Aurora Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Messiaen, Dean, Ligeti, Beethoven, Why Birds Sing: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano); Samuel West (narrator); Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (conductor). Jane Mitchell (creative director); Annalisa Salis (illustration); William Reynolds (animation, projection, lighting and stage design); Ian Dearden (sound). Royal Festival Hall, London, 24.9.2017. (CC)

NR 17-09-24 648
Aurora Orchestra’s Why Birds Sing (c) Nick Rutter

Messiaen – Oiseaux exotiques

Brett Dean – Pastoral Symphony

Ligeti – Poème symphonique

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68, ‘Pastoral’

As off-the-wall events go, this was something else. Visual and interactive, the audience was at various points plunged into darkness, deciding whether or not to stretch their legs for the interval while metronomes still ticked away, and asked to perform origami. Everyone was given a couple of squares of paper and instructions on how to fold it into a bird, then invited to put those birds onto the stage at the end of the first half. (In the event it seemed to be mainly birds made by the players that were in evidence.) This was not your average Southbank event.

The presentation was remarkable, with quotes from Messiaen and with recorded birdsong played while the birds themselves were sketched on a projection onto the (closed) organ. Very much of and for our time, this led to an impeccable performance by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, very much on home turf, of Oiseaux exotiques, the 1956 piece by Messiaen, the composer who surely first springs to mind when one mentions birds in music. Aimard, playing from memory, was superbly virtuoso, his sound surprisingly brittle but always transparent.

After an introduction to “Australia at Dawn” via Brett Dean (“extracts from the dawn chorus in a eucalypt forest” and a specific recording of the pheasant-sized Superb Lyrebird), Dean’s Pastoral Symphony began in darkness – not the only time we were to meet darkness on this Sunday afternoon concert.  Dean’s Pastoral Symphony was premiered in 2001 by the Ensemble Modern and is an exploration of the soundworlds of nature and humans. Thus, calls of birds of the Australian outback vie with sound of an axe, a plunging lift and a helicopter. Dean sees Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ as the starting point of a whole series of works, including many by Messiaen, that explore the relationship of man and Nature. He hears a sense of loss in the natural sounds still available to us: deforestation, expansion and contemporary life in general all take their toll. As he says, the piece is not just about that relationship between man and bird but, in terms of diminishing numbers, the “soulless noise we’re left with when they’re all gone”. The Symphony itself is brilliantly conceived and composed. Instruments’ sounds are altered, like our landscapes: the pianist is asked to hit the piano’s strings with a percussionist’s felt-headed stick, for example. There is a terrific sense of drama and tension here, so much so that the post-climactic music very much has the effect of post-apocalyptic Shostakovich. There was that same blanched, emotionally numb, static feel; a solitary trumpet spoke its lament. At the end, we were all plunged suddenly into darkness. Out of which, came the Ligeti, his 1962 Poème symphonique for 100 metronomes. Metronomes were brought to the front of the stage, where musicians folded a bird from the paper then left the stage; after a while, metronomes a-ticking, the stage was empty and people filed out for a cuppa. Quite a rethinking of a piece that is, itself, a rule-breaker.

The folded birds remained for Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony; now there were lines of lights around the stage, with birds following the lines. Performed from memory, as is the Aurora Orchestra’s trademark, this was a joyous performance. Antiphonal violins just seemed to add to the lightness of texture, while braying horns and a wonderfully bucolic clarinet took us for a walk in the countryside. The orchestral layout was rearranged between movements: the bird-woodwinds came to the front for the slow movement. Lights dimmed, birds answered each other in the shadows; this was a new slant on Beethovenian drama. Lights up, thankfully,  for the scherzo third movement (trumpets and trombones entered here). Fast and fresh, it led to the most incredibly together yet effective storm (featuring, surely, the loudest piccolo ever). In a final light show, the small lights on the floor were picked up in prevailing darkness by the players and worn on wrists, a remarkable light play.

So, not only from memory but with portions in the dark, as well. Amazingly, this concert was a step beyond the remarkable ’Eroica’ that Aurora gave at the Proms this year. What next, one wonders?

Colin Clarke

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