Aurora Orchestra, fun, & Frankenstein!! Aurora Orchestra Principal Conductor Nicholas Collon in rehearsal. Photo: Nick Rutter.

Aurora Orchestra, fun, & Frankenstein!!

Jenna Simeonov

Somehow, it wasn’t until this past weekend that we experienced the surreal magic that is Heinz Karl Grüber’s Frankenstein!!. Grüber’s “pan-demonium” for chansonnier and orchestra fit in beautifully with Aurora Orchestra’s Playing with Fire programme at Royal Festival Hall, which was inspired by the story of Prometheus. Frankenstein!! was book-ended by two work of Beethoven’s, his The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43, and a memorised (!) performance of his Symphony no. 5, Op. 67. The Aurora Orchestra played to a compact audience, packed into the choral pews on the stage of the RFH; an original film commissioned by Stanton Media was projected on a screen behind the performers to add to the eerie, risky vibe of the evening.

The Greek myth of Prometheus, the Titan who illicitly gave to humans the gift of fire, always seemed one of the more frustrating stories in history. Zeus was furious with Prometheus for stealing skills apparently too good for mankind, and he punished the Titan by chaining him to a rock, where each day an eagle would eat his liver, and each night his liver would grow back. To be fair, there’s theft involved in this story, but that seems a petty details for someone like Zeus, the adulterous, shape-shifting lover of behaviour that borders on sexual assault, to dwell on.

There’s a trope in various mythologies about how it’s a horrific crime to give help and knowledge to human beings (including Adam and Eve’s original sin); it seems objectively distasteful, this clear message that wisdom and self-sufficiency are bad things to seek out. Yet it’s fascinating to think of all the stories of mortals who decided to play gods, since it points to all those mortals who glorify the idea.

It’s worth remembering that the full title of Mary Shelley’s 1818 book is Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. In Grüber’s work, the chansonnier takes listeners through various chapters, each a mysterious, storytelling-on-steroids look at various pushers of human limitations. Along with Dr. Frankenstein, we heard weird tales of Dracula, Goldfinger of James Bond lore, John Wayne, Superman, Batman & Robin, and werewolves.

Marcus Farnsworth in rehearsal with the Aurora Orchestra. Photo: Nick Rutter.

Baritone Marcus Farnsworth joined the Aurora Orchestra, under maestro Nicholas Collon, as chansonnier in Frankenstein!!, a role often played by Grüber himself. Farnsworth was the perfect surreal emcee-type. With direction by Martin Berry, Farnsworth’s extraordinary character was layers thick, at once a gleeful child, enamoured with the music around him and the tales he tells, and an unpredictable psychopath. His vocal gymnastics were paired with delightful virtuosity on some of the toy instruments that Grüber includes in his scoring, like slide whistles and kazoos. Farnsworth’s performance was exhaustive and formidable and unforgettable.

The Aurora Orchestra joined in the fun, too. They wielded noisemakers, toy pianos, and whirley tubes (those singing tube-shaped instruments that make sound when you spin them around in the air above your head); the sights were as bizarre as the sounds, and the whole effect spoke both to the child and the lover of the weird within us all.

Nicholas Collon and Marcus Farnsworth in rehearsal with the Aurora Orchestra. Photo: Nick Rutter.

Playing with Fire was our first chance to hear Aurora Orchestra, and they were refreshing not only because of Grüber’s music. They’re a comparably young group of players, and when possible, most of them stood while they played (excluding, forgivably, the cellists); they let the music speak for itself, without forgetting that they were putting on a show and that being a part of an orchestra could be fun. The intimate setting of this programme meant that each listener experienced a slightly different performance, aurally and visually; the orchestra seemed to be working with the elements of live music, pairing their collective skill with their individual personalities.

Photo: Nick Rutter.

Later this month, the Aurora Orchestra returns to the Aldeburgh Festival for a staged presentation by Struan Leslie of great music like Britten’s Les Illuminations, his Young Apollo, and John Adams’ Shaker Loops; the event features soprano Sarah Tynan and an ensemble of circus performers (yes!). For details and ticket information, follow our box office links below.

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