When the youthful Aurora Orchestra set themselves up in 2005, they had no aspirations beyond being musically first-rate.
But they soon realised that the market was so crowded that they had to develop a trademark: hence the cross-arts exploits which won them a Royal Philharmonic Society award last year. And cross-arts is certainly the word for what they set out to do at the Roundhouse. Love Song for the City was the umbrella title for a programme devoted to the death and rebirth of conurbations, and it consisted of what conductor Nicholas Collon described as three iconic works.
First came Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, first conceived for a small ensemble in 1944 but then augmented for 23 solo strings. The debate about its meaning will never be resolved: was it a meditation on Goethe’s poems of transformation, or an expression of betrayal by the leader Strauss had once supported, or was it simply an outpouring of grief for the destruction of everything – a society, a culture, a landscape - he had loved? The music references Beethoven’s betrayal by Napoleon, and the betrayal of Wagner’s King Mark, but it’s one of the most majestically sad works ever written.
But Strauss’s intention - that each player be heard as a soloist – was fatally undermined by this performance (which was also being streamed to cinemas in the North East). Two giant banks of speakers hurled such loud and compressed sound at us that Strauss’s subtly-interwoven lines became a blur. This was not amplification, we were told, nor even ‘sound design’, but ‘sound reinforcement’, to counteract the noisy buzz created by the night-club lighting. Next came an ‘exploration of New York City in sound and image’ by composer Michael Gordon and film-maker Bill Morrison, in which orchestral noodling – first slow, then frantic - accompanied a flickering Twenties-style film projected onto screens. A flock of sheep, an ancient tug-boat, a train passing across a bridge, workmen posing Buster Keaton-style on top of skyscrapers, then the screen split four ways showing God knows what – and this was ‘iconic’? Things wound up with Iain Farrington’s new arrangement of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, which at least had authentic life. Publicity material informed us that Aurora were ‘reinventing the orchestral concert for the 21 century’. Can they be serious?