Aurora Orchestra: Thriller, St George’s, Bristol

Elizabeth Davis reviews the Aurora’s Halloween offering

Music can be terrifying. Think of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony or the Dies irae from Verdi's Requiem. And it’s become a cliché to say that films like Psycho, Jaws or The Shining would have caused fewer sleepless nights and blood-curdling screams if they hadn’t had such fantastically spine-chilling music.

So the Aurora Orchestra’s choice of music for their ‘Thriller’ series of concerts was something of a surprise. Ives’s Adeste Fideles opened the programme, followed by Bach’s Ricercar a 6, arranged by Webern. There was the sublime (Mozart’s Larghetto from the Quintet for Piano and Strings, K581), the mischievous (Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the tragic (Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade) but nothing truly creepy.

The horror writer Peter Straub had written a script for the evening which was pre-recorded and played from speakers on the stage. Frustratingly, each excerpt tantalised with the spectre of a narrative but refused to reveal it completely. The splintered glimpses of plot were not only unrelated to each other but – as far as I could tell – unrelated to the music.

And the same can be said for the movement which accompanied much of the music. The musicians of the Aurora Orchestra wandered around the stage carrying knives, books, blindfolds so that, with all these demands on our attention – read this, turn to this page, watch this projection – there was barely a moment to simply enjoy the music.

And the music, by the way, was brilliant. Nicholas Collon steered the intrepid ensemble through such treacherous waters as Varèse’s Octandre or the rapids of Kats-Chernin’s Cadences, Deviations and Scarlatti. Playing Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (in an arrangement by Iain Farrington) the group created more sound than you would have thought possible with just 17 musicians, and Sibelius’s Valse Triste was exquisite. Thomas Gould, leader of the Aurora, and violinist Jamie Campbell created a moment of fragile, elegaic beauty in Berio’s ‘Aldo’ from Duets for Two Violins. But the music felt very much ‘by the way’.

Inserted into the middle of the programme – again, without much apparent rhyme or reason – was a little known gem. Pianolist Rex Lawson (right) performed Nancarrow’s Study for Player Piano No. 7. Both the piece and the instrument are a rarity and Lawson’s performance was phenomenal. The piece’s complexity is such that the arrangement, by Yvar Mikhashoff, for orchestra, which we heard later in the concert, required the whole of the Aurora’s line-up.

In short, once this concert got down to music making, the Aurora was at its sparkling, irrepressible best. But it could have done without the perplexing gimmickry. 

Elizabeth Davis is the editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine