When Classical Music ‘Explodes’: Aurora Orchestra Pushing the Limits of Symphony
Does it make a difference to the concert experience when you take an orchestra and “explode” it within a space, allowing the audience to move freely between instrumental sections?
This is a question that Aurora Orchestra will strive to answer in three performances of Beethoven’s extraordinary “Fifth Symphony”.
Two sessions will “explode” on March 23 at London’s Printworks, once home to the largest printing press in the Western world, and the remaining one, two days later in a more conventional classical setting – the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre.
As orchestral musicians, we spend so much time sitting at the heart of orchestras, and it’s an experience not many people get to enjoy.
To be right up close to people doing incredibly difficult things, pushing their skill sets to the limit as they’re playing fast passages or extremely quietly together; all of those things we get to experience all the time as musicians, but when you’re sitting far away in a concert hall, that’s not the experience you get at all.
As members of Aurora Orchestra, we have taken this to heart.
We are no stranger to taking risks in the concert hall, regularly performing from memory, removing music stands and sheet music.
We’ve found this transcends our playing. It injects a sense of spontaneity into our performance and there’s a heightened sense of communication, both between the players and with the audience you’re performing to. It’s quite addictive!
So, what if we could give more people this experience?
Aurora Orchestra & Nicholas Collon Ⓒ Nick Rutter
A MORE TRADITIONAL ORCHESTRAL ARRANGEMENT
A traditional orchestra has, of course, changed over time.
From being led from a harpsichord or by a soloist in the baroque era (1600-1750), to the introduction of woodwind and brass doubling in the romantic era (1800-1850), by Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” piccolo, contrabassoon and trombones triumphantly sound in the final movement.
That’s the size of the orchestra, but what about layout?
Conductor Leopold Stokowski was a great one for experimenting with seating plans.
“On one occasion, he horrified Philadelphians by placing the winds and brass in front of the strings,” says Courtney Lewis, music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. “The board was outraged, arguing that the winds ‘weren’t busy enough to put on a good show’.”
The “Stokowski Shift” moved the second violins from the right hand side of the conductor to the left hand side of the first violins, which in Stokowski’s opinion created a better listening environment for the players.
However, orchestra layout remains very much conductor’s preference, and is dependent on several factors including the venue and the repertoire.
There are a number of different ways of doing it in order to create an optimal listening environment for players, conductor and the audience.
Because ultimately, listening is most of our job as a musician. We are listening to our fellow performers, we are listening to the conductor, we are even listening to the audience.
Symphony Orchestra setup. Credit: www.wxqr.org
WHAT HAPPENS IN AN ‘EXPLODED’ ORCHESTRA?
Basically, the opposite of what Stokowski was trying to achieve with his “Shift”.
It’s incredibly challenging for us players. Playing so spread out is incredibly difficult, we have to really trust our instincts and go with sightlines and not necessarily what we hear. It would be virtually impossible if we weren’t playing from memory, because when you play from memory all the communication becomes more intense.
We have to make a lot more eye contact and feel what others are feeling without being buried in music stands.
We know the piece so well, so that’s a huge safety net: when you put us further apart we can rely on all those things.
As a player, you feel like you’ve gone into some weird zone where everything is kind of familiar but also unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
Printworks Press Halls was once home to 90 metres of extremely noisy printing machines (the biggest in Europe). To avoid sound bleeding into surrounding areas of housing, the whole hall was soundproofed, floor to ceiling.
So, where a concert hall will be built for the optimum acoustic performance, Printworks is basically the opposite.
We can’t hear the other players in the orchestra and there’s no lovely reverb for the audience to bath in a symphonic sound, as they would in a concert hall. Add in “exploding” the orchestra, and it’s basically a lost cause.
However, thanks to D&B Audiotechnik, everything becomes possible, and even the most dead acoustic can be brought to life.
With 58 D&B speakers around Printworks forming an “acoustic shell” and each of us players microphoned up, our playing is put through complex algorithms that model a concert hall in Stanford, which is then modelled onto the Printworks Press Halls, reproducing the rich reverb traditionally heard in a concert hall.
So even though you might be standing directly by the bassoon, with the first violins over 50 metres away from you, as an audience member you will still be able to hear their shimmering melody as clearly as if you were stood next to those violins.
Aurora Orchestra at Printworks. Credit: Jake Davis
WHY TAKE CLASSICAL MUSIC OUT OF THE CONCERT HALL?
At this point you might be thinking, why? This all seems incredibly complicated in terms of replicating the sound heard in a concert hall.
Well, imagine listening to a piece of music you think you know well in a car for the first time. Suddenly, bits of the music pop out that you could have sworn weren’t on the track when you listened to it before.
This experience will allow you to piece together all musical parts that form the full picture.
Classical music traditions are steeped in history, with nearly 500 years of precedent and an incredible canon of music. If you’re lucky enough to be introduced to them, they can be something eye-opening, stimulating, and for many, life-changing.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets the opportunity to delve into the world.
We want to reach more people and grow the artform we all love – and this means changing up its format, breaking down the traditions, and trying new things.
For the regular classical go-ers, we hope there’s something new here for you.
For example, you might never have stood next to a bassoonist playing a symphony, or even the electronic music created by multi-disciplinary artiste Nwando Ebizie in between movements might be novel for you.
Nicholas Collon & Aurora Orchestra at Printworks London. Credit: Jake Davis
HOW DOES IT MAKE THE AUDIENCE FEEL?
For the audience, the change is transformational. It forces them to interact with the music in a different way, as well as provides them with a whole new appreciation for the genre. They can’t help but be immersed in it.
It relaxes the audience in a way that a traditional setting never could – there’s no conformity, no stigmas, no traditions.
You can feel the music however you like.
Jane Mitchell, Creative Director and Principal Flautist of Aurora Orchestra credit Jake Davis
Jane Mitchell is creative director and principal flautist of Aurora Orchestra. Aurora Orchestra perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from memory at Printworks, London, on March 23, 2023, alongside new music from multi-disciplinary artiste Nwando Ebizie.
For a more traditional performance of Beethoven, Aurora Orchestra plays Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, on March 25, 2023.
Catch Aurora Orchestra at Printworks London on Thursday, March 23rd and book your tickets here now.
Cover: Jake Davis
For more on classical music, read:
- Master of Mood: The Introspective Style of Classical Musician Ludovico Einaudi
- Muting Expectations: Samson Young’s Love of Classical Music and Sound Effects
- ...But Is It Classical?
- Classical Piano, Digital Animiation, And Societal Purpose
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This feature is written exclusively by Aurora Orchestra for Sound of Life.