Prom 72: Aurora Orchestra/Collon review – Berlioz as vivid to the eye as the ear

Royal Albert Hall, London
Berlioz’s music - and the man himself - is brought to colourful life in a rip-roaring performance of his Symphonie Fantastique

Berlioz should have been a character in an opera. But, not one of his own. It would need to be by someone capable of nailing his arch-romantic bearing with the balance of seriousness, levity and affection. Much like the Aurora Orchestra’s Prom achieved at the Royal Albert Hall.

Telling an almost autobiographical story of opium-addled infatuation, the Symphonie Fantastique is an obvious candidate for the ‘orchestral theatre’ approach that Aurora has developed over the past few Proms seasons. This time they wove a deft character sketch of the French composer, into a rip-roaring performance of his work.

Around a third of the 90-minute concert was an introduction to the symphony and its creator. Perhaps inevitably, the parts that involved conductor Nicholas Collon leading his players through musical examples felt a bit high-fibre, especially given the lightness of touch with which actor Mathew Baynton embodied the wide-eyed, smitten composer. This was Berlioz in his own words, his memoirs providing ample material for Jane Mitchell’s script.

Playing from memory ... the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon.
Playing from memory ... the Aurora Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Photograph: Mark Allan/BBC

Come the symphony itself, all this made the performance even more colourful and sharply focused. Baynton introduced each movement as Berlioz and, as usual for Aurora’s Proms, all the musicians played from memory, mostly standing up and free to move.

There were many memorable visual moments: the four glittering harps in the ballroom movement, which ended in a whirl of lights reflected from half a dozen glitterballs; then the musicians were fireflies beneath a glowing moon, lights illuminating from their wrists; and the Witches’ Sabbath had them in sinister paper masks, the stage lit blood red. Yet nothing upstaged the music, with Collon driving the tempos and encouraging characterful playing from wind and brass. The performance was as vivid to the ear as it was to the eye.

The Proms continue until Saturday.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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