Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Fizzing with energy: Beethoven's Seventh Symphony performed from memory outside at Kings Cross by Aurora Orchestra

Aurora Orchestra under the West Handyside Canopy at Kings Cross
Aurora Orchestra under the West Handyside Canopy at Kings Cross

Beethoven Symphony No. 7; Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon; West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 September 2020
The first large-scale symphonic concert to a ticketed audience since lockdown (probably).

This was always going to be a significant occasion, and for all the limitations of a performance given under current regulations, the sheer joy of hearing a full symphony performed by a large group of musicians, all together in the same space was simply palpable.

Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra is performing Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 from memory at  the BBC Proms on Thursday and in the run up to this performance the orchestra had a number of extra performances presumably to get the work well bedded in. This is a common occurrence, and under normal circumstances such an extra performance would be notable but hardly exceptional. But these are exceptional times.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 - Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra - West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 - Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra
West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

Aurora Orchestra is resident at Kings Place, and someone had the bright idea of transporting the performance across the road to the West Handyside Canopy which runs between Waitrose and the new development which houses Central St Martin's. This is a large public space, but it is rainproof. So there we were, seated on socially distanced chairs with people coming and going to Waitrose on one side, and passers by walking through Handyside Gardens on the other, though it was interesting to see how many stopped to listen. Noises off included the rather disturbing sound of supermarket trollies running over cobbles, as well as more general, but overall there was a sense of occasion.

So on Monday 9 September 2020, Nicholas Collon conducted Aurora Orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 under the West Handyside Canopy at King's Cross (a roof built in 1888 to provide a covered area for unloading fish and perishable goods from railway carriages for distribution around London, and now a space used for markets and events). The symphony was given entirely from memory with the orchestra (largely) standing up, and all suitably distanced. There was amplification which was admirable, though there were some details of balance (the prominence of the double basses) which I was uncertain whether they were due to Collon's preferences in Beethoven's textures or to the vagaries of amplifying the ensemble. 

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 - Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra - West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 - Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra
West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

However, what did come over was the players' joy in communal music making. Shorn of stands and chairs, the standing players were all free to react to the music, and react they did. Wagner called this symphony the apotheosis of dance, and here we sensed the musicians if not dancing then certainly swaying to the music. The symphony is notorious partly because of Beethoven's metronome markings imply a tempo in the final movement which can seem unachievable. I have no idea how close Collon and his players came to the historic metronome markings, but the whole symphony was taken at quite a lick. But more importantly it flowed, there was never a sense of the music being driven instead the slower movements seemed to have a sense of momentum which was welcome and the faster ones a feeling of unstoppable energy. This was an evening which positively fizzed, and the joy was palpable.

The slow introduction had a lovely contrast between smooth wind lines and the strong string chords, and a sense of excitement built and built until Beethoven finally releases us. The main part of the movement was notable for lightness and bounce in this highly engaging performance, one of the danciest accounts of this movement that I have heard. As if that wasn't enough the coda ended it with sheer elan. The slow movement had a great deal of life and shape to it, both the melody and the accompaniment, and throughout we could appreciate the sheer skill with which Beethoven varied the endless repetitions of his melody and harmony. And everyone was swaying to the music. The scherzo was taken at quite a lick, thankfully; this is a movement which can get repetitious and Collon's account certainly kept us moving, whipping up the excitement at times. The finale was fast and tight, and for all the excitement and elan there were plenty of moments when things eased back, though we ended with an eruption of furious energy.

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 - Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra - West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 - Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra
West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross (Photo Monika S Jakubowska/Kings Place)

The orchestra gave a second performance later that evening, and will be back in harness on Wednesday 9 September at Saffron Hall, and then at the BBC Proms on Thursday 10 September.

Elsewhere on this blog
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  • The sheer joy of music making: the Maggini Quartet emerges from hibernation to celebrate the delight of playing together  - concert review
  • Children can do so much more than you think: Susan Moore, artistic director of W11 Opera on challenging young performers to produce an opera under lockdown  - interview
  • An eight-hour solo piano masterpiece: Sorabji's Sequentia cyclica receives its premiere performance from Jonathan Powell - CD review
  • A distinct voice: a new disc from Resonus explores Florent Schmitt's Mélodies, a wide-ranging survey of song by an under-rated composer - CD review
  • Beethoven refracted and contemplated: Peeter Vähi's Hommage à Brillance de Lune - CD review
  • Lise Davidsen and James Baillieu live from Oscarshall Palace in Oslo  - concert review
  • At the Gates of the Twighlight Zone: 19'40" explores Bernard Herrmann as part of its eclectic recording series - interview
  • Forty-part reflection: Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet and James MacMillan's contemporary reflection on the latest disc from Suzi Digby and ORA Singers - CD review
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