Aurora Orchestra: Road Trip (CD review)

Sam Amidon, voice and guitar; Dawn Landes, voice; Nicholas Collon, Aurora Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646327911.

Conductors Nicholas Collon and Robin Ticciati founded the adventurous young British chamber orchestra Aurora in 2005. Since then, they have been receiving good reviews not only for their performance style but for their diverse programming, playing everything from Baroque to modern music. Road Trip (oddly misspelled as one word on the cover and the disc) appears to be the orchestra's debut album.

The ensemble plays beautifully, a precision instrument yet full of spunk and spark. They remind me a lot of San Francisco's New Century Chamber Orchestra and New York City's The Knights. The question I have, though, is how many classical listeners buy record albums because of favorite orchestras rather than favorite soloists or favorite composers. I dunno; well, not my business.

A look at the disc's program shows just how diverse Aurora's material is with works by American composers John Adams, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Paul Simon, and several traditional numbers arranged by Nico Muhly. The program is both daring and conventional at the same time.

Whatever, first up (after a brief introduction) is Chamber Symphony by John Adams (b. 1947). Adams himself writes that Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony was his inspiration for this 1992 composition, as were some animated cartoons. So, it's understandable the work involves a good degree of high spirits and kinetic energy. The Aurora Orchestra capture the fun of the three-movement piece with apparent glee, right up until the closing mixture of clashing gaiety.

Next are several tunes arranged by Nico Muhly (b. 1981): "Reynardine," "The Brown Girl," and, closing the set, Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones." "Reynardine" tells the story of a young girl and a werewolf, nicely sung by Sam Amidon and smartly accompanied by Aurora. Singer Dawn Landes does a sweet-voiced rendition of "The Brown Girl," a lovely lilt always present in the music. Then Sam Amidon again does the voice and guitar work on Simon's tune, making a fitting conclusion to this "road trip."

Nicholas Collon
The Housatonic at Stockbridge from Three Places in New England by Charles Ives (1874-1954) was for me the highlight of the program. The work, though brief, captures the soft, misty moods of a quiet river at night, the orchestra always at the command of the music. It's wonderfully evocative in a gentle, comforting manner, culminating in the sound of a church spiritual across the way before falling back into silence.

And there is Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland (1900-1990), the familiar piece performed in its original version for thirteen instruments. Because Copland's work is probably the most familiar thing on the program, it has the most competition on disc, including the composer's own 1973 recording for chamber orchestra (which is a bit longer and more complete than the suite we get here). Copland marks the first movement "Very slowly," and that's exactly how the Aurora Orchestra plays it, very slowly indeed. It sets the tone and creates the atmosphere for the remainder of the work. Although taking things a tad more leisurely than other recorded performances I've heard, the Aurora players make the composition as colorful and engaging as any you'll find, and they do up the famous variations on a Shaker hymn in a most-gentle and poignant fashion.

Raphael Mouterde engineered and produced the album, recorded at Kings Place, London in January and April 2014. The sound is about as ideal as one could want, with plenty of transparency in the midrange and bloom and air around the instruments. In other words, it sounds real, dimensional, each player in the ensemble clearly delineated yet blending into the whole. With its smooth, detailed response, the sound is among the best I've heard from a new recording in quite some time.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa