Braving the Stave

In conversation with Nick Collon (Aurora Orchestra Conductor)

April 22, 2020 Jonathan James & Nick Collon Season 1 Episode 1
Braving the Stave
In conversation with Nick Collon (Aurora Orchestra Conductor)
Braving the Stave
In conversation with Nick Collon (Aurora Orchestra Conductor)
Apr 22, 2020 Season 1 Episode 1
Jonathan James & Nick Collon

Jonathan James talks online to Nick Collon, conductor of the Aurora Orchestra, about their feats of memorisation and about the challenges of  Beethoven's epic 'Eroica' symphony. 

Among other candid insights, Nick reflects on how we don't think twice about other artists memorising their parts - opera singers, for example - and how the Eroica should "hit you around the face', and not be allowed to "turn into sludge". 

This is related to the concert that would have taken place at St David's Hall, Cardiff on the 18th May 2020 with the Aurora Orchestra.

Support the show (!/DonationDetails#%2FDonationDetails)

Show Notes Transcript

Jonathan James talks online to Nick Collon, conductor of the Aurora Orchestra, about their feats of memorisation and about the challenges of  Beethoven's epic 'Eroica' symphony. 

Among other candid insights, Nick reflects on how we don't think twice about other artists memorising their parts - opera singers, for example - and how the Eroica should "hit you around the face', and not be allowed to "turn into sludge". 

This is related to the concert that would have taken place at St David's Hall, Cardiff on the 18th May 2020 with the Aurora Orchestra.

Support the show (!/DonationDetails#%2FDonationDetails)

Jonathan James:   0:00
Nick Collon, Thank you so much for sparing a little bit of your Easter weekend to talk to me about the Eroica adventure I'm going to call it that were sadly missing at St David's Hall Festival. First of all - How are you coping with quarantine?

Nick Collon:   0:15
Well it's funny you say Easter Weekend. Every day melds into the next, doesn't it? You forget what day it is I think. We're on school holidays at the moment, but well, look, it is is extraordinary time, and I'm very lucky to be well at the moment and healthy. And so are my family and I am feeling extreme empathy for those who have been struggling with this horrible virus. So let's hope the whole country can come through this nicely.

Jonathan James:   0:45
Absolutely. I suppose the positive, if there is any to be drawn from this, is that those of us who are fortunately keeping well, maybe have a new lease of creative life. Are you find yourself exploring new creative avenues.

Nick Collon:   1:01
The honest answer is no. Lots of people are and that's great, but I've got three kids, which means that actually being conductor that I am away a lot. It's something I'm very sad about not being able to see my family all the time. This is, you know, an enforced quarantine and as I am with my family it's right that I am spending as much time as I can with my kids and really focusing on the family. That actually means there's very little time to do anything else. You know where our youngest is just a baby, so that's really nice, and, to be honest,  I think that a bit of time away from the job that I've been doing now for whatever, 15 years, is is quite welcome.

Jonathan James:   1:49
I can imagine as a creative challenge it is of a different kind, we could say, in the new domestic environment am I can imagine that particularly your relationship to the Aurora orchestra is a very all consuming one. It seems to demand so much of you, not just as a musician and conductor but also as an artistic director because of the breadth off the vision.  I just wanted to ask you how that vision has developed over time. Particularly, I'm thinking about the memorisation of pieces, which, if I'm right, started up in 2014 as he memorised Mozart's 40th Symphony. Where was the seed for that idea. When did you think you know what? Let's just do the whole symphony o by heart!

Nick Collon:   2:36
I thought about it a little bit before, but it was actually I guess probably sometime in 2012. Roger Wright, director of the prom's asked Aurora to do this piece by Benedict Mason called Meld out of the BBC Proms in 2014. That was a piece written for enormous Orchestra and Choir. I think there are a few dances, and it was a special piece around the Royal Albert Hall, where everyone would be on click tracks so they have a thing in their ear which would show them with pulse was. They basically had to memorise the music, these short snippets of music not very complicated, but the whole thing was extremely geographically complicated. As a result, we decided that everyone had to have memorised that piece. Then we were thinking, what else could we do along side it and I thought, why not do the whole prom with everything is from memory. We were thinking about it anyway. It's just an idea. I wanted to see if it was achievable. So we thought what would be a nice hopefully possible piece to memorise and  Mozart 40 was the answer to that.

Jonathan James:   3:49
Is it now a firm, part of your orchestral credo, as it were that you have to do at least one symphony, one major orchestral work off by heart in each season?

Nick Collon:   4:01
It's a very interesting question. We don't really want it to define us. We hope that it's also a means to an end rather than an end in itself,. So actually increasingly we are doing more with it. The Berlioz  that we did in last years Prom, the memorisation aided us to sort of put an element of theatrical staging around it, which wouldn't have be possible without the memorisation we are. I mean, we do do about two or three projects or a year from memory and they are very popular with audiences and the players love doing it. We think it gives us something very important to say, actually, although, of course it's worth saying and reminding people that it's only today that 30/40% of what we do as an orchestra and there are that many concerts that we do with sheet music. So yeah, we want to be careful that it doesn't become how you know, synonymous with Aurora particularly on lots of other organisations and orchestras and ensembles which are starting to do more of that work as well. I wouldn't ever say it's a sort of essential performance practises. I'm not suggesting that real should start playing from memory, but for us it provides many, many positive things.

Jonathan James:   5:26
Those positives are so clear to the audience as well, in terms of the interaction, the freedom of the physicality. I also noticed that the players were looking at you far more than perhaps a typical orchestral musician might during the course of a programme. Did you feel that extra connection yourself?

Nick Collon:   5:47
Oh yeah, hugely so. They were watching me a lot, watching each other a lot, they had to, their eyes are suddenly out of the orchestra. Music has got many advantages, and one certainly is visual communication between the players, but also for the audience to be able to watched the visual communication is quite an amazing thing, actually, particularly when you see it contrast with us, the same orchestra playing from music, It certainly has an added element of, well, often of joining to be honest, that's not to say again that the outcome will necessarily be better or more touching for the audience but it's certainly different.

Jonathan James:   6:30
Yeah, absolutely. It's electric, really even watching it on screen as I was this morning, just seeing your proms version of the Eroica Symphony, the capacity of the sound and the connection with the music is so real, so allowing.

Nick Collon:   6:45
Everyone is very invested in it. They also feel very comfortable with it. Comfort is an important part of music making, you know, feeling that you are 100% on top of something will always give you the added  benefit when you're playing it of being able to communicate it.

Jonathan James:   7:02
I'm surprised you're using where comfort, because the first reaction, surely to sort of memorising something like the Eroica is I would imagine is the opposite end of this spectrum beyond discomfort and possibly terror. I don't know, what was one of the logistical challenges that the orchestral musicians face apart from just this year, challenge of, you know, memorising their individual parts

Nick Collon:   7:28
well, it is only really that, I mean it's coming together and playing it together is then much easier than it normally would get? Of course, each individual goes on their own journey. People will have to fight with the extra additional nerves let's say that comes on top of playing something from memory but makes people really enjoy the challenge. You know, these are very serious musicians who can play their instruments very high level and enjoy that task of spending that much time in piece of music, months of preparation, and then feel like they really own every note of it said, so by that point, you know, you don't really ask opera singers what they're thinking as a go on stage about memorising the whole of a piece, which is probably much harder. You don't really think about that element of it for them. Yust think that I'm going on stage? The memorisation is the byproduct, and for us it has become as well.

Jonathan James:   8:32
How do you rehearse if you want to go for say three bars after B or whatever?

Nick Collon:   8:38
I use a piano sometimes, I might play a chord.  Or I talk in technical language. Quite often, you know the "second subject" or "just after the second subject". Whether something like the Bassoon does that, sometimes I just sing a bit and they coming in on the beat, You know, they will join you. I just start singing, sing some bars and you know, everyone's caught up by 10 bars in.

Jonathan James:   9:01
What were the particular challenges off performing the Eroica. I mean, I just don't know which was the most of intricate movement to piece together in this way.

Nick Collon:   9:14
Well, the memorisation doesn't really effect that... I'm trying to remember back. I think Eroica, for something was one of the hardest pieces to memorise, that we've done anyway, we were just about to really get stuck into it, I guess coming out for May, they were probably about to open their copies. You know many of them have done it before and think about all those nasty bits which were very difficult to memorise. I mean, there are many serious challenges to playing the piece full stop, nothing to do with memorising. It is technically very difficult piece, all of it, every movement is. I think the second movement actually is extremely hard musically just even finding the sound of the first violins in the beginning, that the opening of that funeral much. It's very difficult keeping the swing of the first movement, this wonderful thing, that sort of in three beats in a bar, but also one in a bar, not letting it turn into sludge. It's like a very complex drape hung on a climbing frame and as soon as one little bit of the drape gets a bit too soft the whole climbing frame just folds down underneath it, and you feel the whole thing. That is really helped by memorisation. That was much easier than I found it with other orchestras because people just were able to really, really listen to the to the combined sound of everybody and that makes it easier. Things that are hard when you're playing without notes in front of you, also hard with them in front of you, it has something new about it. For me, it wants to sort of hit you on the face. Those first couple of chords and then keep the energy up along the way to the end rather than being like a sort of a dull thud.

:   11:14

Nick Collon:   0:00
Nothing dull or thuddish about it, definitely had the spark of revolution and we will be so sorry to miss it this time round at St David's Hall. I'd like to finish with just a look ahead really. Where next for you? Are you looking to perhaps do the Eroica tour post peak once we are allowed out and to have mass gathers again, or perhaps we could look at the next piece that you are considering to memorise?

Jonathan James:   12:57
Well, I really hope that we'll be able to bring this back to Cardiff  because I have never performed with Aurora in St David's Hall. We were very much looking forward to it. We would like to do Eroica, it will probably be now in 2021 which is quite soon on orchestral planning horizon, but we would like to do it then and hopefully bring it back. So let's see, we will have to have conversations about this with Aurora. It is pretty difficult to tell what we're gonna be able to do, you know. That concert is cancelled. We had a couple of big projects in July that are cancelled.  Maybe it wont surprise you I'm probably not supposed to say, but you know, we do quite often feature in the proms in the summer, so we may be featuring in the prom's this summer as well. Then there is a question mark over whether that will go ahead or not. So lots of question marks, really, and hopefully we'll get some answers. But I think you know, there's lots of time isn't there in life to deal with these things. And the most important thing now is that we will get through this in the right way and ensure that we can get back to performing and living

:   12:58

Jonathan James:   13:19
Well. Nick, thank you so much again for joining me. And best of luck in navigating through all those questions that you're facing both as a norganisation, as an ensemble, of course, for you personally wishing you all the best and hoping to see you come all the stronger on the other side of this.  Thank you.

Nick Collon:   13:19
Thank you very much John