Thursday 9 January 2014

Aurora's Road Trip

The Aurora Orchestra's Road Trip
Road Trip: The Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon at King's Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 4 2014
Star rating: 3.5

A Road Trip across America to investigate what makes America music unique

Nicholas CollonFrom a modern take on traditional folk songs to Ives, Copland and Carter, the Aurora Orchestra went on a ‘Road Trip’ across America, at the Kings Place in London, to investigate what makes American music unique. With programme notes in the style of Jack Kerouac and images of an open top American car they were all set.

Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon are a group of talented musicians able it seems to turn their hand to any style of music and supply virtuosic soloists from within their ranks.

Matthew Gee on trombone opened the concert, high up on the balcony, with ‘Retracing V’ by Elliott Carter (1908 - 2012). Carter’s prolific career spanned more than 75 years and resulted in the production of more than 150 works. His earlier works, written during and towards the end of World War II, were neoclassical (along the lines of Stravinsky and Copland), but over time he developed more of his own experimental and modernist style. ‘Retracing V’ is one of five miniatures for solo players written in the last year of his life. This is music pared down to its absolute minimal and Matthew used to most of the air and space of his staging to add to the open aural space in the composition, resulting in a haunting experience.

Thomas Gould on violin and John Reid on piano played no less shabbily for the first movement from John Adams’ (1947 -) ‘Road Movies’ from 1995. Adams’ music is often described as being minimalist, however ‘Relaxed Groove’ is much more descriptive. The repetitive elements within this performance described hints of a rail or road trip, with a definite feel of going on a journey, and were overlaid with jazz-like passages and folk rhythms and chords. 

The main ensemble played Adams’ ‘Chamber Symphony’. Composed in 1992 for 15 players the symphony was an attempt to recapture the effect of listening to the hyperactive, aggressive sound of children’s cartoons whilst simultaneously studying the score for Schoenberg’s chamber symphony. The first movement ‘Mongrel Airs’ had themes rising and falling back into a general melee, and a sudden ending which ‘Aria with a walking bass’ with its cross rhythms kept threatening to return to. Despite the imminent cacophony each individual performer could be distinctly heard. ‘Roadrunner’ was more rhythmically based, bringing the percussionist to the fore. A virtuosic violin solo hailed a reprise of the melee and its final abrupt ending.

Interspersed between the heavier items were several folk songs. The first was described as a folk fiddle medley ‘Dusky Meadow’ for string quartet, and began peacefully with breathing in the lower strings moving into a Scottish reel, with its heritage in Nova Scotia, and slap bass. Arranged by Iain Farrington of the Aurora Ensemble this cleverly managed to imitate the sound of bagpipes and Breton strings. As the piece progressed the performers were joined by Gould and Max Baillie swapped his bow for a mandolin. The mandolin was sometimes swamped by the strings but this did not affect the piece as a whole.

Three short pop-folk songs were sung by Dawn Landes - a singer-songwriter from Kentucky. The movingly atmospheric ‘Dig me a hole’ and ‘Home’ were sympathetically orchestrated by Farrington, however ‘Idumen’ and ‘Hearts and Bones’ were over-arranged by Nico Muhly. Some of the sounds he created were lovely, but in the main they were obtrusive and overpowered Dawn’s voice. ‘The Brown Girl’ also arranged by Muhly was more successful but at times also overwhelmed the story. 

Carter and Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990) were both supporters of Charles Edward Ives (1874 –1954), whose music was largely unknown during his lifetime. For most of his life Ives worked in insurance and as an actuary, and only in his spare time was a composer and organist. Notwithstanding retiring from business three years later he wrote his last composition in 1926. ‘Three places in New England’ was written sometime in the first decade or so of the century and finalised in 1929 for its first performance. 

‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ was written for his wife and recalled a walk taken during their honeymoon along the Housatonic river. The river itself and its milieu were envisaged by lots of little discordant meanderings all going on at once, but from this a hymn tune on the strings (from the congregation of a local church) ‘Dorrance’ rose and floated above. A loud section, complete with the pianist smashing his forearms onto the keys led into a bridge on held strings and moved directly into ‘The brown girl’.

The final piece of the concert was ‘Appalachian Spring’ by Copland. Probably the most recognisable of American classical music Copland wrote this for a ballet in 1944, but rewrote it as a shorter orchestral suite for 13 players a year later. The Aurora Orchestra attacked this with the same controlled enthusiasm as the Ives and again their clarity of playing allowed the different characters and moods to come through.

This concert is part of an ongoing series at the Kings Place, St Lukes, and the Wigmore Hall. Their next concert ‘Serenade’ on the 9th February promises to be much darker, featuring works by Britten, Mahler and Shostakovich.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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