Aurora Orchestra/Iestyn Davies/Nicholas Collon: How Pure the Sky
Helen Wallace reports from Aurora Orchestra's concert at LSO St Luke's
Fluidity is a rare prize in the classical concert. With the barriers of audience and stage, the fixed hierarchies of the orchestra, long walks on and off stage, changes of personnel and moving of music stands, seams are all too apparent. With the New Moves series, Aurora Orchestra have made it their mission to rethink the format, and ‘How Pure the Sky’ proved how a strong concept and imaginative use of space and lighting can deliver fluidity more effectively than a barrage of high-tech options.
In a programme of delightful variety and subtle connections, star countertenor Iestyn Davies appeared on screen, from out of the audience, singing in the gallery above us, in front of the orchestra and emerging out of the shadows for a sly jazz encore. Rather than a soloist parachuted in, one sensed Davies was a genuine partner in crime.
Another shadowy but very audible, partner was composer Nico Muhly, who provided the gleaming new arrangement of Howells’s King David and a heady re-imagining of David’s ‘O Lord, whose mercies numberless’ from Handel’s Saul. Before we could hear King David, however, we were subjected to the rather tiredly portentous ‘low noise + whistling wind’ treatment and a film of Davies walking across a moor at night. The concert’s narrative arc took us from dark clouds to birdsong and blue skies, a change of mood the music needed no help in communicating. When it comes to audio-visual in concerts, less is usually more. The real strength of Aurora’s proposition lies in its original musical programming and in-depth preparation.
Muhly’s orchestration of King David is in saturated colour, while showing keen empathy with Howells's idiom. Davies’s voice emerged out of its silken textures with clarion confidence, the fine trumpet solos, oboe as nightingale and glints of vibraphone making an exquisite foil to his own sonority. There followed another recreation in Adès’s Three Studies from Couperin, pleasing and unsettling in equal measure. Listening to the bass and alto flutes intone the florid melody of Les amusemens is like hearing Couperin through the aural equivalent of a distorting mirror of frosted glass. The Aurora players nailed the complex pointillism of Les tours de passe-passe, and projected the grounded melancholy of L’Âme-en-peine down to the most tender of pulses on timpani and bass drum.
The second half ended with JS Bach’s darkly dramatic cantata BWV 54 ‘Widerstehe doch der Sünde’, Davies was urgent above the driving, motoric chromaticism of its final aria, but his voice lacked the tonal lustre of his recent performances in Rodelinda at ENO. After the ethereal melismas of Muhly’s Handel arrangement, which Davies performed from the gallery, he descended for the evening’s centrepiece, Gluck’s miraculous ‘Che puro ciel’ from Orfeo ed Euridice, here dew-fresh, following a lovingly presented ‘Dance of the blessed spirits’. Sunshine continued in Schubert’s breezy Fifth Symphony, only its Menuet hinting at the mercurial depths of the mature composer. Collon switched from Schubert to Irving Berlin with the lightest of touches as Davies appeared, umbrella in hand, for a slyly witty Blue Skies. A night to remember.