BBC Proms 63, Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon, September 2023

The Rite by Heart
– A dramatic exploration of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
– Igor Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (from memory)

A packed Royal Albert Hall greeted me for this evening’s Prom, and in a very different style from the usual fare. The stage had been painted white and was dotted with boxes of various sizes whilst not a single music stand was to be seen – the latter, part of Aurora Orchestra’s trademark approach of performing from memory – and what a piece to attempt the feat.

The first half was dedicated to a theatrical interpretation of the genesis and creation of the work with actors Karl Queenborough and Charlotte Ritchie in turn taking the parts of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Nicholas Roerich (the original production designer) and Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer. Using excerpts from extant correspondence between them and with conductor Nicholas Collon acting partly as a narrator, partly as musical director, this cleverly weaved together the various branches and personalities in the story. I was particularly impressed by the seamless choreography from various members of the Aurora orchestra, moving about the stage in different combinations and forces, playing various illustrative passages. Coupled with projections and lighting for further effect, this was a fascinating introduction to the piece, pitched perfectly for everyone from the non-musician through to those who have made the subject their life’s study.

After the interval, the main event: The Rite of Spring from memory. Here Collon took a more traditional approach: players in the usual orchestral positions, conductor on a podium – and with no distractions from additional effects, complete trust was placed in the material and the players’ ability to perform it – and my word, they delivered.

Freed from the constraints of seating and uncluttered by music stands I was immediately struck by an alertness and clarity I have never heard before from such a large ensemble. The removal of the safety net of having the music in sight gave a sense of an edgy danger, heightening the impact of the ferocious attacks, complex rhythms, searing solos and taut pianissimos – exactly the right feeling for the piece.

Standing ovations, in my opinion, are given out far too freely but tonight’s performance deserved it in abundance – I have never heard so raucous and rapturous a reception at the conclusion of a concert, increased further after the encores of two sections with the players coming into the audience space, positioning themselves at random in the aisles and promenading space, giving the audience a flavour of being in the midst of the orchestra, ‘the best place in the world’ as Collon put it.

There is much hand-wringing and many column inches expended on the future of classical music. If this is one of the forward directions, that future is in very good hands.

Lucas Elkin