Review: Aurora Orchestra Thriller

Principal players of the Aurora Orchestra with
conductor Nicholas Collon (seated)

Thriller: Automatic Writing
(Aurora Orchestra, St George’s, Bristol. Review by Eleanor Turney)

As a concert, Thriller was superb. As a concept, I found it less successful. The fabulously talented musicians of the Aurora Orchestra have collaborated with American horror writer Peter Straub and theatre-maker Tim Hopkins to produce more-than-a-concert, where the music is layered with projections, mime and speech. Given that the performance is primarily a concert, let’s concentrate on the music first.

An eclectic – and sometimes fragmentary – programme of music showcased this talented orchestra to the full. From the ethereal Adeste Fideles by Ives, through the atmospheric and plaintive Berio Duet for Two Violins and ridiculously intricate pianola piece (Nancarrow played by Rex Lawson and his impressive beard), to the languid beauty of Mozart’s Larghetto from Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, this was an evening of gorgeous playing.

The highlight for me was Kets-Chernin’s Cadences, Deviations and Scarlatti, a piece where percussionist Henry Baldwin really shone. The big, bold opening died away to an almost minimalist section with a few notes being passed around the orchestra, a captivating drip-feed of sound. The gradual build-up was magical, with swooping strings and punchy brass giving the impression that Kets-Chernin was having immense fun playing with texture and sound. It was totally fascinating to watch and hear, but the music was enough. All the other things – musicians wandering around the stage waving mysterious numbers and enigmatic props – were extraneous.

In an intriguing piece of programming, the second half began with Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 7, performed with startling dexterity on the pianola. The Study was then repeated as the penultimate piece in an arrangement for orchestra by Mikhashoff. The contrast was so great that it felt like being offered two disparate pieces of music. A treat for Nancarrow fans.

Unfortunately, despite the hype and the clever marketing (which promised to unsettle the audience provided you “leave your your rational mind at the door”), the music occasionally became overshadowed by the staging. The theatrical add-ons felt, well, tacked on, and had me bemused rather than disturbed. Props were handed out on the way in and then not really used; sealed envelopes were symbolically opened at the end – but to what point and purpose I could not say. All the theatrics felt gimmicky, and were a distraction from the superb music. Perhaps as the piece continues its tour the dramatic gestures and mime will become more significant, but, to my mind, their failure was not through lack of commitment but through a confused overall vision.

Straub’s recorded voice was transmitted in between the pieces, but it was unfortunately rather muffled in St George’s, making it impossible to glean any narrative or information. Hopefully, if the recordings are clearer in other spaces then the thrust of the narrative will become clearer.

Having marketed Thriller heavily as an unsettling and creepy experience, the evening does not really come off as a performance. As an avowed wimp, I was never even mildly apprehensive, and there were points where it felt as though some of the players were struggling to keep a straight face. Straub taking the stage with a box on his head, a woman holding a knife. These things are not significant (or even interesting) in and of themselves, and there was not enough narrative to imbue them with the significance they were clearly supposed to have.

However, when the music was left unadulterated, the concert was stunning. The Aurora Orchestra are to be applauded for their superlative playing and for trying something new, but they should probably have let the music do the talking.

Thriller is on tour until November 4th, including two London dates . Tour dates

Categories: miscellaneous

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