Spira Mirabilis

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The democratic orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

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When you go into an art gallery, do you dash round spending a few minutes in front of each painting? Or do you pick one, and spend some time exploring its every nuance and brushstroke? Somehow, I imagine that the former approach is ingrained – there’s a sense of needing to get the most of out your time, perhaps money. But, as they say, sometimes less is more. Why not just look at one painting, or, for that matter, in a concert why not just listen to one piece of music?

That’s just one of the liberating ideas making up Spira Mirabilis’s artistic ethos. An Italian-based chamber orchestra, with no conductor, this is the ensemble that made waves two years ago in London thanks to its fresh and democratic approach. Last week they were back in town for ‘The Beethoven Encounter’: a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony one night, followed by his Sixth Symphony the next evening.

I’ve always rather liked the idea of just hearing one piece of music in an evening; it's a little like the short-but-perfectly-formed lunchtime concert. Perhaps it wouldn’t work with anything less than an acknowledged masterpiece, but certainly with Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 it was a satisfying, uplifting experience.

An opening talk with the orchestra, conductor and period performance expert Sir Roger Norrington and Southbank former head of music Marshall Marcus examined how this orchestra works. Conversation replaces the conductor, with intensive, immersive rehearsals over a week or so. And, going a step further than other conductorless ensembles like the Australian Chamber Orchestra or the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, this is a democratic approach. Each player has to know every musical decision taken, and each decision is made by every player.

They don’t look like our conventional idea of an orchestra either, but more like a large chamber group. The woodwind stand up, first and second violins face each other, double basses on the left, cellos and violas in the middle. String players are in rows, not columns. All the instruments are modern, apart from the timpani which are authentically small and played with hard sticks. The piccolo stands behind the second violins.

But, putting the process to one side, let’s turn to the performance. Spira Mirabilis’s sound is muscular, lustrous and energised. It seemed to build up from the double basses – fully part of the string sound – and the cellos, their leader a compelling presence in the midst of the ensemble. Constantly moving, the orchestra members communicated with each other by by gesture, breathing and listening – of course that's true of all musicians, but the removal of the conductor made it even more important. And from the large collective breath which launched that famous opening, there was an impressive unanimity of sound in the string sections. In the woodwind, a rosy-toned oboe and jaunty bassoon stood out. Throughout, every brushstroke was taken care of. 

In a work so familiar, the template for so many dark-light symphonies to follow, it can be hard to make the finale musically, emotionally and ideologically plausible. But there was a heady sense of excitement in the transition to the finale as the military tattoos neared. That first flush of exultant C major was more like an awakening than a victory, capped by a sun-filled blaze of brass. The orchestra seemed to smile. And that, for me, was the revelation: this wasn't just music being performed, it was music being shared.

Contributor profile

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks

Rebecca Franks is reviews editor of BBC Music Magazine.

Rebecca Franks