Smoke and Mirrors: Aurora Orchestra Goes Gothic Back

The beginning of 2018 marked the bicentenary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818); thus it comes as no surprise that this year is replete with events related to Shelley’s novel. From academic seminars to movie screenings, the celebration of her iconic work naturally extends into the realm of music. On 14 September 2018, the Southbank Centre hosted the first event of Aurora Orchestra’s new 2018-19 season, titled Smoke and Mirrors. The avant-garde season programme is a collection of short stories, written by Aurora resident writer Kate Wakeling, which focuses on the many conceptual stories music can tell. The story of Frankenstein drives the conception of Smoke and Mirrors.

Inspired by the early 19th century, the event attempts to tie together three pieces: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in C minor (1808); Schubert’s Der Wanderer, D. 489 (1816); and HK Gruber’s acclaimed Frankenstein!! (1979). A smoke machine fills the crowded hall as the lights grow dim, producing an otherworldly effect which takes the audience back in time, to the summer of 1816. A narrator relates the events of 1816, a literal dark time in history, when Indonesian volcano Mt. Tambora erupted, famously altering the weather worldwide to create a ‘summer without sunlight’.[i]  Holidaying at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva during the summer of 1816, Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori, and Claire Claremont were driven indoors by torrential rains and gloomy skies. The result of such cheerless weather was a contest to write the best ghost story. Today this contest is seen as legendary, as from it arose the first vampire novel through Polidori’s The Vampyre and the birth of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Written that same year, Schubert’s Der Wanderer takes Georg Philipp Schmidt von Lübeck’s nostalgic poem to create ‘foreboding introductory triplets’ and ‘bittersweet usage of the major key’ to convey the elusive nature of happiness: a quintessential theme of these counter-enlightenment works.[ii] The melancholy song is sung by baritone/chansonnier Marcus Farnsworth, who appears through the mists in period costume; a scene which has been likened to Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting Wanderer Over the Sea of Fog (1818).[iii] Sung in German, Farnsworth’s lamentations are haunting and poignant.

This atmosphere does not last for long, however, as the rest of the orchestra assembles on stage, the lights are raised and the scene transitions into Gruber’s fanciful Frankenstein!!. Written after children’s rhymes by Austrian poet H.C. Artmann, the poems are more modern, dealing with popular figures such as John Wayne, Dracula, Batman and Superman, and of course Frankenstein. Described by Gruber as a musical ‘pan-demonium’, Frankenstein!! utilises unconventional instruments such as paper bags, kazoos, wind-makers, and toy clarinets.[iv] Farnsworth’s vocal agility is evident as he moves through a dizzying amount of characters, all while coaxing his colleagues into fancy dress, much to their seeming chagrin and tight-lipped expressions. Memorably the conductor and co-founder of Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon, dons a pair of red pants in Superman-like style. It becomes clear that many children are present in the audience, as Farnsworth’s zany antics cause voices of excitement and laughter to ring throughout the hall. While the tone of Frankenstein!! doesn’t quite fit with the unsettling Gothicism which the event promotes, the piece does loosely remind the audience of Shelley’s ghost story contest, with an aim to create a world where ‘nothing is quite as it seems’.[v]

The best is truly saved for last in this instance. A narratorial voice frames the final piece with a recitation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1810 review of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, emphasising the ghoulish and animated spirits the score brings to life. Four loud knocks reverberate through the speakers overhead, mirroring the distinctive four notes which begin the first movement. While this sound effect can seem corny to some, it leaves the audience with a heavy silence that teems with anticipation for the famous opening notes. Aurora dives right in with a clean approach to tempo and a restrained vibrato that sets a fierce and intense tone for the Allegro con brio. The scherzo and final movement see the addition of more trumpets and a piccolo, in a triumphant and glorious upsurge of music which fills the air with soulful and uninhibited pride.

Of course, the most prominent feature of the evening was not just the music selection, but the manner in which it was performed. Aurora is internationally renowned as the first orchestra in the world to memorise entire scores, and this performance was no exception. It was sensational to watch Aurora work closely together on the stage, sans sheet music, reacting to each other’s cues and moving fluidly as one body. The instrumentalists physically reacted to the music, infusing that emotion into their instruments in a mesmerising way that can only be described as genuinely performing the music. Aurora ended the afternoon performance by dispersing throughout the hall and surrounding the audience while they played the final movement a second time. This truly spatial experience allowed the audience to participate with the music in a new way. One audience member remarked that this manner of performing reduces the barrier between the musicians and the audience, while another termed it simply ‘brave’. Aurora received a standing ovation for what I would describe as an impressive and remarkably fresh take on classic works that we have come to know and love.

[i] Kate Wakeling, ‘Collected Stories 2018-19’, Aurora Orchestra (London: The Music Base, Kings Place, 2018) p. 7

[ii] Wakeling, ‘Smoke and Mirrors Programme’, Aurora Orchestra, (London: Southbank Centre, 2018) p. 1

[iii] Benjamin Poore, ‘Scintillating Beethoven and Gruber from Aurora Orchestra’, Bachtrack (London: 18 September 2018) < https://bachtrack.com/review-smoke-mirrors-gruber-frankenstein-beethoven-farnsworth-collon-aurora-orchestra-september-2018> [accessed on 23 September 2018].

[iv] Wakeling, p. 1

[v] Wakeling, p. 2

Smoke and Mirrors was performed at the Southbank Centre, London on 14 September 2018.