Eroica by Heart: Nicholas Collon’s Aurora defies concert conventions in an unforgettable and heartfelt way

United KingdomUnited Kingdom R. Strauss, Beethoven: Tom Service (presenter), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 8.5.2024. (CSa)

Nicholas Collon conducts the Aurora Orchestra in R. Strauss’s Metamorphosen © Julian Guidera

R. Strauss Metamorphosen
Beethoven – Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’

There’s a story about Igor Stravinsky who, shortly after his arrival in New York in 1939, was engaged by a society hostess to give a private recital. ‘Your fee will be $3000’ wrote the wealthy socialite, ‘but on the strict condition that you will not speak to any of the guests’. ‘If that is the case Madame,’ replied Stravinsky, ‘my fee will be $2,000’.

Certainly, since the mid-nineteenth century, the rules and etiquette governing classical concert performances have with a few notable exceptions – Beecham, Bernstein, Barenboim, Schiff and Elder come to mind – discouraged musicians talking to audiences. This stringent convention may have dated from the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when orchestras, freed from the drawing rooms of noble patrons, began to be heard by the wider public. Musicians were still widely regarded as court servants, expected to bow in deferential gratitude, but to remain mute.

Nor, generally speaking, have musicians invited audiences to participate. The origins of audience silence go back even earlier, when church worship was the most common form of communal music making, and the congregation unless authorised to sing along, was required to listen to the celebrant and choir in reverential silence. All of which leads to the innovative Nicholas Collon, founder and conductor of the remarkable Aurora Orchestra, who has broken free from the stuffy, static concert-going conventions of the past. Instead, they provide educative and dynamic programmes in which the music is first explained and analysed, and then played from memory. The Aurora promises a form of ‘Orchestra Theatre … adventurous productions that rethink the concert format [and] bold new ways to engage with orchestral music.’

These promises were fully realised at their Queen Elizabeth Hall concert.  Reprising a programme first heard at the BBC Proms in 2017, Collon working hand-in-glove with the erudite and irrepressibly buoyant music journalist Tom Service, compared and contrasted Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen and Beethoven’s ground-breaking Symphony No.3 ‘Eroica’ before the two works were performed by heart. The duo’s well-oiled, lightning introduction was illuminating, amusing, unpatronizing and (rescheduled BBC Radio 3 please note) never dumbed down. They lifted up the bonnet of each piece, so to speak, and explained the compositional mechanics beneath, which they illustrated with excerpts from cleverly choreographed and constantly shifting groups of musicians or individual players. Almost at the outset of the evening, the audience, divided in two sections, were encouraged to sing the simple melody underpinning the opening Allegro of the Eroica and clap its alternating rhythms. ‘Think hot cross buns with a snappy ending!’ suggested Service. In another playful moment, Collon with droll humour introduced us to ‘Steve … the man who Beethoven kept up his sleeve’. At this point the Aurora’s principal oboist Steven Hudson emerged and stood centre stage to play the first movement’s overlying theme. Then came an enlightening analysis of the Symphony’s sombre second movement Marche funebre, and Metamorphosen, Strauss’s grief filled study for twenty-three solo strings.

Emphasising the close relationship between these two works, passages from each were ingeniously woven together, helping us to understand the decision to pair them in one concert. Last came an insightful look at the fugal section of the Eroica’s finale, with the orchestra positioned in a great horseshoe, marking Beethoven’s unorthodox syncopations with some well-timed foot-stamping and a triumphant ‘oi’ at the end of each phrase.

Metamorphosen was the first piece to be played in full. It was completed in 1945, two weeks after Hitler had committed suicide. Strauss was almost at the end of his life and returning to the bombed ruins of Munich was forced to confront the destruction of his city, his homeland, and 2000 years of German culture. The Aurora’s strings, all standing save for cellos and double basses, were well coordinated and finely balanced. (The strings stood in the Beethoven too, along with the brass and woodwind.) The musicians played Strauss by heart and from the heart, giving each swelling phrase clean lines and dense textures, and sweeping one away in an elegiac and at times unbearably moving account. The QEH’s warm acoustic worked particularly well for them, bathing the contrapuntal interplay between the instruments with the warmth and intimacy of a chamber recital.

Nicholas Collon conducts the Aurora Orchestra in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony © Julian Guidera

Broken fragments of the Funeral March from the Eroica flitted, ghost-like, through the last tragic minutes of the Strauss, but Beethoven’s defiant spirit arose triumphant and transcendent in the concert’s second half: a radiant and full-blooded rendition of the Eroica in its entirety. Collon and his band drove the music with startling urgency and energy; a performance so fresh it felt as if the ink on the absent music sheets was still wet. The opening Allegro con brio was taken at a brisk pace, with some exceptionally crisp playing from the woodwind and brass. The second movement – whose C major theme was described by musicologist Sir George Grove as ‘a sudden ray of sunshine in a dark sky’ – had its ensuing solemnity dispelled by a majestic fugue magnificently played here by the strings. A burnished horn trio in the Scherzo from Annemarie Federle and her colleagues, gave way to an explosive Finale and Presto coda taken at lightning-speed.

Wreathed in smiles, the orchestra members embraced each other and acknowledging the cheering audience, bowed in gratitude, but not in deference. Fanning out deep into the hall to give an encore (a repeat of the dazzling Presto coda) the musicians stood shoulder to shoulder with their public, playing from their hearts as before. This was indeed a marvellous new way to engage with orchestral music, and an evening which will live in the memory.

Chris Sallon

Leave a Comment