The Rite by Heart: the Aurora Orchestra at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Prom 62 – Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring: Charlotte Ritchie (actor), Karl Queensborough (actor), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.8.2023. (CS)

The Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon © Andy Paradise

One would think that being asked to perform Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring from memory would be every musician’s anxiety dream – a moment of vulnerability, ‘nakedness’ even, standing before an audience and required to play this astonishingly complex score without a music stand and sheet music for protection and reassurance.  But, for the members of the Aurora Orchestra who performed this incredibly uplifting Prom, it seemed like a dream come true.

It was 2014 when conductor Nicholas Colon first began to experiment with performing works by heart, and at the Proms that year the Aurora Orchestra performed Mozart’s Symphony No.40 in G minor.  An experiment became a vision: since then, the orchestra have performed Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, Beethoven’s Third, Fifth and Sixth symphonies, Brahms’s First Symphony, Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony, Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite and, last year, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  If listeners were beginning to take these astounding feats for granted, then they’d surely have been jolted from any complacency simply by the notion that one could perform The Rite – a perilous peak of orchestral virtuosity and a maelstrom of metrical mazes – by heart.  The performance itself was almost deliriously dynamic: no dancers were required – the musicians created and were enclosed within their own kinetic aura.

In 2021, when I reviewed the Aurora Orchestra’s performance of the first of Stravinsky’s three ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, I did express some misgivings about the first half of the programme, which promised to ‘explore and reveal’ the secrets of Stravinsky’s ‘composition, orchestration, and creative feeling’, though I did acknowledge that my feelings were probably not shared by most in the Royal Albert Hall.  So, I did have a slight worry that I might spend the first forty minutes of the Prom itching for the ‘music proper’ to begin.  It turned out that on this occasion I need not have had any such concerns.

Assuming a variety of roles and bringing to life those associated with the creation of The Rite –Stravinsky himself, the impresario Diaghilev, choreographer Nijinsky, and co-writer and set/costume designer Nicholas Roerich – actors Charlotte Ritchie and Karl Queensborough presented a script by Jane Mitchell which was a model of how to simultaneously educate, entertain and engage.  Mitchell balanced the narrative of the work’s origins, development and first performance with the unfolding action of the ballet itself, with musical inserts in which Collon and his players both provided musical accompaniment to these stories and, guided by Collon’s unassuming explanations, illustrated the tools and techniques of Stravinsky’s own musical narrative.

Charlotte Ritchie, Karl Queensborough, members of the Aurora Orchestra © Andy Paradise

Accounts of the notorious premiere on 29th May 1913 revealed Nijinsky counting ferociously in the wings to guide his dancers, his voice drowned out by the audience’s howls and clamour – his infuriated outburst, “What an idiot the public is!”, raised a chuckle in the Hall.  Conductor Pierre Monteux – whose ‘back made a more vivid impression than the picture on stage’ – was, in the recollections of one audience member seated in the fourth row of the Théatre des Champs-Elysées on that 1913 evening, ‘as impervious and nerveless as a crocodile’: his expressed incredulity that Monteux had actually brought the orchestra through to the end, might have given a conductor with less trust than Collon has in his players food for thought.

Excerpts from diaries and letters revealed creative energies and tensions, as well as contradictions, conflicts – sometimes epic, and raging for months during the rehearsal period – and ambiguities.  I loved learning that it was Marie Rambert who stepped in to help Nijinsky, whom Stravinsky considered ‘musically illiterate’, guiding the dancers who felt that the choreography was too rigid and constrained, as they untangled and phrased the rhythms – counting numbers that seemed generated by a machine, a random sequence, genuinely impossible to remember.  Her heroic efforts earned her the nickname, ‘Rhythmica’.

The orchestra sang the Lithuanian folk melody that became the opening bassoon solo.  Bassoonist Amy Harman had plenty of opportunities to practise that high-lying melody – performing the meandering phrases spot-lit on a blacked-out stage, then moving to the front to play it again with the ornaments, pauses and rhythmic variations that Stravinsky introduced, joined by dissonant horn and slithering bass clarinets.

Members of the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon © Andy Paradise

The choreography (Mitchell and James Bonas) was polished, Anouar Brissel’s projections making rippling shapes and light, highlighting particular musicians and special moments.  Even that dreaded ‘audience participation’ was both charming and revealing.  We heard Stravinsky’s sketches as he searched for the harmonies that would form the pounding ‘Dance of the Adolescents’.  Could the Prommers simultaneously sing an Fb major triad and an Eb7 chord – the crushing bitonal thump which underpins that dance?  You bet they could.  And, if you think that placing twos against threes is tricky, then Collon got the audience to clap and build up layers of metrical mischief-making, showing how such rhythmic squabbles drive the music forwards. The ostinatos, stabs and slashes of ‘The Dance of the Earth’ were brilliantly exemplified, verbally and musically.  The claustrophobic rituals of the ‘Sacrificial Dance’ were dissected and put back together again.

The performance itself felt like a wonderful release: this Rite sounded so lucid, fresh and free.  Watching the (largely standing) players look at each other, rather than at their individual sheet music; share smiles and conversations; enjoy not just their own parts but those of each and every one of their colleagues; anticipate and relish the dramatic richness and warmth of the musical narrative, was an absolute joy.

The players revisited some of Stravinsky’s most outlandish creative imagings in encores which saw them dispersed throughout the Stalls and Arena.  The Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon – who spun round, conducting in a circle – were inside the music.  And, they were dancing.

Claire Seymour

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