Playing classical music from memory – DW – 04/24/2023


When it comes to creative, unusual and impressive performances, the Aurora Orchestra really stands out. Forget chairs, the London-based ensemble often plays standing, and the musicians even perform whole symphonies from memory! The orchestra’s conductor, Nicholas Collon, says this gives the music a different sound.

The Aurora Orchestra took the stage twice at the 2022 Beethoven Festival in Bonn: first to perform music by Beethoven and Polish composer and violinist Grazyna Bacewicz, and then again to play Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in the festival’s closing concert.

In this episode, we’ll start with the most contemporary music: Grazyna Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra, written in 1948.

Grazyna Bacewicz’s music is going through a renaissance of sorts.

Born in 1909 in Lodz, Poland, she began her career in 1932 in Paris. A violinist, Bacewicz performed all across Europe. Her instrument features prominently in her more than 200 compositions.

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a statue of Beethoven.
Beethoven was known for his fiery temperImage: Willfried Gredler-Oxenbauer/picture alliance

Her fellow composer Witold Lutoslawski praised how she combined the talents of both a creator and an interpreter into a harmonic whole, which made her stand out from the trending styles of the mid-20th century. Bacewicz died in 1960.

A sonata for a Black violinist

Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” gets its nickname from the French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer. What you may not know is that the composition was originally conceived with a different violinist in mind.

Musician Jonian Ilias Kadesha shares the tale surrounding this sonata: “There is this story that ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ should be called the ‘Bridgetower Sonata’ because it was dedicated to this apparently wonderful Black violinist Bridgetower, and he was the one who gave the premiere, and Beethoven was actually really happy with it.”

“But then,” adds Kadesha, “we know from Beethoven’s history, he had quite a temper. So he had a fallout with him and changed the dedication to Rodolphe Kreutzer. And in fact, Kreutzer never played the sonata and didn’t actually like the piece, so it’s a kind a bit of a sad story that we keep calling it the ‘Kreutzer Sonata.'”

In the edition of the piece dedicated to Kreutzer, Beethoven describes the composition as “a sonata for pianoforte and an obligato violin written in a very concert style, almost like a concerto.” The version of the sonata we’ll hear sounds particularly concerto-like: it’s an arrangement by Australian violinist Richard Tognetti for solo violin and string orchestra.

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The “Kreutzer Sonata” is one of Beethoven’s most well-known and popular sonatas, and not without reason, says violinist Jonian Ilias Kadesha. “What is wonderful about this sonata is it’s written in such a big scale. It has so much material and such incredible energy. The sort of obsession he has with certain textures – it’s really amazing.

Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’

The London-based Aurora Orchestra is renowned for its creativity and unique performances. Each year the orchestra picks one work to memorize entirely. One of these pieces is Hector Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” which can also be heard in this episode.

If you’re already familiar with it, you’ll know that it lasts more than 50 minutes and is filled with musical details. In other words, it’s a challenging piece. So how does one memorize such a gigantic symphony?

A portrait of Hector Berlioz from the 19th century
Hector BerliozImage: Imago/Imagebroker

Violinist and orchestra leader Maia Cabeza explains how she does it: “It’s like a story, right? So once you start, one thing leads to another. That’s how I think of it, because if I go onstage and I think, ‘Oh, I have to play this entire symphony by memory,’ then it’s quite overwhelming. But if I think, ‘It’s really a story, and one thing leads to the next thing, and I will know when that moment comes in story how that continues,’ then it’s actually much more approachable.”

A versatile composition

Berlioz’s symphony is a fantastical tale in five movements. It recounts the experiences of a musician who, despairing in love, takes opium in desperation.

The Aurora Orchestra is the first orchestra in the world to play entire symphonies by heart. The group’s conductor, Nicholas Collon, is convinced that this opens up new performance experiences for both the musicians and the audience.

“It’s brilliant: You can play the piece 10 times, and there is still an element of charged atmosphere about it, because there’s a slight danger to it, also, and because you’re always thinking incredibly quickly with your head at the same time. You can never sit back and just play,” says Collon.

The five movements of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” use evocative musical sounds and reoccurring melodies to depict five episodes in the life of the protagonist, the despairing, drugged-up musician.

That dramatic piece was also the final one in today’s show and season. The show was hosted by Cristina Burack and produced by music editor Gaby Reucher and sound engineer Christian Stäter.

If you have any feedback, write to us at music@dw.com. Join us for more exciting classical music performances in the next season of DW Festival Concert, which starts after the summer.


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