It’s been interesting to witness a slow orchestral strip-tease over the last two decades. Thomas Zehetmair’s Quartet proved that an ensemble could memorise a whole evening’s programme. Chairs were kicked back – by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and many others. Peter Sellars unshackled principal players of the Berlin Philharmonic in his ground-breaking St Matthew Passion, who, like the singers, played by heart. Then along came Aurora and went for the full monty: no chairs, no stands, no music. At one point they even cut the lights. A phenonemon was born.
Beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter and Symphony No. 40, Aurora has now memorised Beethoven’s Eroica, Fifth and Pastoral and Brahms’s first symphonies. It’s an unprecedented achievement, at least since Hans von Bülow conducted the Meiningen Court Orchestra without music in the late 19th century. This summer I heard Aurora’s Brahms’s Symphony No.1, an edge-of-seat experience. Drawn into the breathless drama of remembering I found my mind racing for the next passage, often confounded when things took an unexpected turn. I absorbed the symphony more completely than ever before. And yet… we think nothing of a solo pianist giving two-hour recital without music, or a baritone memorising five hours of Die Meistersinger? So what is so fundamentally different, and demanding, about orchestral memorising?
Bassoonist Amy Harman explains: ‘When I learn solo bassoon pieces, I have the melody, but the bassoon part of Brahms’s first symphony can be a seemingly random sequence of notes. It was like learning a thousand numbers of Pi – you can’t hum it. Some of my colleagues have almost photographic aural memories, but I had to learn it in a more mathematical way, creating sequences and giving them colours.’ In these days when knowledge is accessible at the swipe of a fingertip, she found the process switched on a part of her brain which we don’t use nearly enough: ‘The first three lines of the Brahms took me two days to learn, the last two pages, half an hour. Now I’m on a roll.’ Returning to Mozart’s 40th Symphony again, she found the clear classical structure now inhabits ‘my head and heart.’
‘It breaks down the hierarchies – it makes us feel more like a team of actors or a dancers’
Time plays a critical role, explains principal flautist Jane Mitchell: ‘Most of my solo repertoire I learnt when I was at college, with hours to spend in a practice room. That music is in my bones, but in the busy life of a professional musician, you don’t have that time. When we started on the Jupiter Symphony I also had a small child, so I had to use every spare moment pushing the buggy or travelling in a tube to read my part and absorb it.’ She, too, found the initial process ‘more mathsy’ until she joined up with the other players, ‘and then the musical structures come into focus and you realise you’ve all done a collective analysis of the piece, you’re acutely aware of the exposition, the development, the recapitulation, in a way that seemed more theoretical before.’
Time is an essential ingredient in rehearsals, too, which have to be longer and more numerous than normal. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in a country famous for its crushed schedules, an orchestra would rebel and pioneer such a radical approach. ‘In the early rehearsals there’s a sense of high nervous tension,’ explains Mitchell, ‘everyone is scared they won’t remember. As we go on, a more relaxed, liberated atmosphere takes over.’ Principal second violinist, Jamie Campbell, concurs: ‘Despite the nerves and the pressure, we play better and more freely.’ Conductor Nicholas Collon mixes up the players’ positions too, which has led to startling discoveries: ‘Musically, it’s very interesting for me suddenly to be standing in the middle of the violins,’ observes Mitchell, ‘I’ve never appreciated quite how busy and virtuosic the leader’s part is. Equally, others have said they never realised how much breathing preparation goes on in the wind section.’
In any orchestra there are entrenched territories, hierarchies and social groupings, but this exercise seems to have unleashed the musicians as individuals and in so doing made them tighter as a team. Cellist Sébastien Van Kuijk describes it as sharing a ‘survivor mode, which draws us closer together.’ The reality of the players’s co-dependence is palpable: they congratulate each other warmly afterwards. For Mitchell it goes further, it ‘breaks down the hierarchies – it makes us feel more like a team of actors or dancers, for whom there’s a sense of equality and mutual support. It’s an extreme exercise in trust.’
That idea of a group of dancers struck me powerfully watching Aurora playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony: the collective breathing, and string bowing created organic patterns of movement – a bodily manifestation of the symphony. Amy Harman has noticed how compelling her family find this aspect: ‘They can actually see the impulse and momentum of the music expressed physically on stage.’
Having entered this musical utopia, what does it feel like to go back? ‘It’s quite strange,’ says Mitchell, ‘because you can’t do it by halves. If you have music in front of you again, you have to read it, you can get caught out just as easily. And you can give a wonderful performance in conventional conditions, no question.’ For oboist Katie Bennington, ‘it’s like a weird drug: I didn’t know if I could do it, it’s amazing to find that I can and now I just want to do more.’ Amy Harman feels the same, ‘I knew with Aurora it would never stop at Mozart, I’m sure we’ll do The Rite of Spring one day!’ Jane Mitchell, who is also the orchestra’s Creative Director, rules nothing out: ‘It has to be something that could come alive under these conditions, something that people feel is worth the time investment. Leaving behind stands and chairs makes it possible to look at more theatrical ways of presenting the music, we can play with movement and lighting, as we did for the Pastoral.’ Those brave enough to join the memorising projects now form an elite cohort; adventurous players from other orchestras are getting interested. Is Aurora posing a threat to others by setting the bar so high? Mitchell is unequivocal: ‘If we can bring new audiences to great music via this route, that has to be good for everyone.’