Orch to play symphony from memory at the BBC Proms. Good idea?

Orch to play symphony from memory at the BBC Proms. Good idea?


norman lebrecht

August 08, 2014

Nicholas Collon and his trendy Aurora Orchestra are going to perform Mozart’s 40th symphony from memory, in what is claimed to be a first at the Proms. Can you see the point? We can’t…

bbc proms

press release:

In what promises to be a unique concert experience the Aurora Orchestra and Chantage, under conductor Nicholas Collon, perform the world premiere of Benedict Mason’s Meld at the centre of an extraordinary Late Night Prom on Saturday 16 August which leaves behind many of the conventions of orchestral performance.

The concert opens with a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 which the Aurora players will perform entirely from memory.  This is thought to be the first time a whole orchestral symphony has been performed without music in the 119-year history of the Proms.

The Mozart is followed by Dobrinka Tabakova’s Spinning a Yarn, which places the rustic hurdy-gurdy alongside a solo violin.

At the heart of the programme is Benedict Mason’s Meld, a major new work for nearly 150 performers which pushes the possibilities of the Royal Albert Hall to their farthest limits. Combining music with a sense of spectacle, Meld’s extraordinary score is a tour de force of orchestral and choral theatre as much as a pioneering musical achievement. The traditional standing places for Prommers in the Arena and Gallery of the Royal Albert Hall will not be available and Prommers will be allocated seats as part of the composer’s artistic vision. Mason’s wish is that the audience approach the piece with a totally open mind.


  • Eric says:

    “This is thought to be the first time a whole orchestral symphony has been performed without music in the 119-year history of the Proms.”

    Obviously, I know what they mean…but I think if they added the word “sheet” in from of music it would read better. I actually did a double take reading it as this would be the first time, most likely, that an orchestra piece was performed without any kind of music at all in the history of the Proms.

    • David Hutchings says:

      Eric, I hear you; performing Mozart 40 “Without music”; could this perhaps be a 4’33” in reverse?

  • Conductors memorize scores to devote more eye time to the ensemble so why not try the reverse? Veteran players probably have a warhorse like that darn near memorized anyway.

    The choir at my college performed everything from memory; that worked very well for them (I’m sure many of them weren’t music readers anyway.)

    Professional choirs like Chanticleer perform long programs from memory to be more engaged with the audience.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      But orchestras? Should the violins be making eye contact with Patsy in row 3?

      • newyorker says:

        Yeah, why not? Engaged music making is the idea. Not status quo.
        When I’ve heard the best orchestral music making in the world, from ensembles like Berlin and Cleveland, there was a huge amount of eye-contact and body language happening. I guess that’s the same thing as you are deriding about poor Patsy?

        • newyorker says:

          Excuse me — I see that you meant Patsy to be an audience member, not a colleague.

          I think the real goal of this experiment should be 1. Engagement BETWEEN PLAYERS in the ensemble and 2. Shared responsibility for the larger shape of the music (rather than just the conductor being responsible for it).

        • Pete says:

          Depending on who the conductor is–

          much eye contact between the players and the concertmaster.

  • David Hutchings says:

    When the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra played Mahler 2 a couple of years ago, their timpanists played the thing from memory. Ok, so in terms of the number of notes this is not the same as playing a violin, but soloists play from memory.

    I can see it being a minefield for memory lapses, but there’s no other reason why not; it could be quite liberating in a sense…

  • David Hutchings says:

    If Patsy is a third desk cellist, I see no reason why not; perhaps Nicholas Collon is preoccupied making faces at the oboes!

  • harold braun says:

    Why,for heaven´s sake?

  • Anon says:

    This has the potential to be quite exciting. Playing without music – along with the discipline required to learn the notes first – should then leave the performer knowing the work so well that they no longer need to concentrate on the nuts and bolts – instead they can concentrate on driving the vehicle and the direction.
    Let’s turn the question round. If all musicians always performed with sheet music, would it make any difference? I think we’d easily conclude that opera would be a different experience if all the singers were walking round with their head in a score, and that it’s better that they have a dramatic, musical and interpretative freedom from learning the parts in advance. So why not an orchestra too?

    • David Hutchings says:

      This argument is somewhat weakened by the fact that an orchestra playing Mozart 40 are not actually acting, just playing.

      Consider also the musicians in the pit at the opera. They play from music!

      It’s a form of safety net made necssary by the sheer variety of challenges. When you put together the challenges of playing in a syphony orchestra, it’s a bit like having to be able to cross a tightrope while dancing on the back of a bear…

      • Anon says:

        Sure, the players in Mozart 40 aren’t acting in a stage sense, but I think you know what I meant. Same applies to concerto soloists who we would expect to perform without the score, so well should they know it. And conductors who often perform score-less too.

        As for orchestras in an opera pit, the practicalities dictate they need to play from sheet music, rather than than it necessarily being the best situation musically. They play a different opera (or ballet) every night, which is hardly straightforward to memorise for starters.

        • Dave says:

          Yes, I did know what you meant! & maybe I’m just playing devil’s advocate, simply becuse it’s such an interesting subject 😉 But since the orchestra don’t need to act in character, it only suggests that it can be done, not that it should be done!

          As for pit musicians, some of them play the same show for nights on end. Hallidor’s comment below perhaps suggests the pitfalls [sorry!] of doing this – it is harder to memorize a large number of smaller disparate fragments than a longer symphony which we know fits together.

  • Tobin Stokes says:

    If the musicians all do their homework, the Mozart will be fantastic.

  • Halldor says:

    Played the opening movement of Mozart K.525 from memory on various occasions in my quartet gigging days, and I suspect a lot of colleagues could do so at the drop of a hat! It’ll be fascinating to see what this yields, musically.

    The main thing it indicates at this stage though, I’d say, is truly luxurious quantities of rehearsal time on a single work. For a normal working UK orchestra, delivering 6-8 different complete programmes per month, this would be unthinkable.

  • Etienne Abelin says:

    No, but with Betty on the third stand of the viola section. Performativity (or a lack of intensity thereof) is a major issue in classical music performances, I find. A lot to be experimented with and I think this is one very promising approach.

  • Fritz Curzon says:

    probably a good opportunity to hear two or three different Mozart symphonies all at the same time?

  • David Pickett says:

    I see every point in doing this and I applaud the Aurora Orchestra before hand for doing so.

    One of the things I regret not being alive to hear is the Meiningen Court Orchestra conducted by Hans von Bülow, which also played from memory. The orchestra spent the last three months of 1880 rehearsing nothing but Beethoven. Then they went on tour, fully prepared, alles auswendig.

    Actually, there are orchestras that can play the G minor symphony without looking at the notes — the Vienna Philharmionic, for one. I once challenged my own orchestra in rehearsal to play the opening of the Zampa Overture with the music closed, and it was amazing how far we got: it was great fun.

    • Sixtus says:

      I don’t believe the Meiningen orchestra played everything from memory. Certainly the early performances of the Brahms symphonies they did would have been extremely dodgy if played from memory. And von Bulow was such a perfectionist that he would have tolerated little freedom or waywardness in the playing of individual orchestra members. In this case I think performance from memory is little more than a circus stunt. As a stunt I would have preferred instead that all the strings except the cellos play standing up, which does have an impressive historical precedent in Mendelssohn’s Gewandhaus Orchestra.

  • Allie says:

    Why not? Speaking as a violinist, if you know a piece of music, you have it memorized. If you don’t have it memorized, you don’t really know it.

    It’s rather like the difference between an actor who performs his part from memory–and one who still has to read his lines and blocking from the script.

    When part of your brain is engaged in translating visual images, that affects the musical performance. If you’ve ever played in a string quartet, then you know that NOT being “buried in the music” is the most effective way to have the best ensemble and the most convincing musicality.

    For a standard like Mozart 40, that should be a no-brainer for most (if not all) of the orchestra. Most of them probably have it memorized already, anyway.

    Music, above all, is communication. The best communication occurs when all involved focus on communicating with each other rather than reading dots on a page.

  • Andrew says:

    Aurora Orchestra, as in, Aurora Illinois?

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    I think its a stonkingly good idea.

    If you watch the truly great orchestras of the world, like the Berlin and Vienna Phils, they have the music on the stands in front of them but they seldom look at it- so great is the interraction between the players- they play as one not as individual entities.

    So much modern orchestral playing is technically brilliant but souless and robot like. Playing from memory will increase communication and this is what audiences want.

  • Dan R says:

    Stephan Cürlis, timpanist with the NDR Sinfonie Orchester, and frequent guest elsewhere, always performs from memory. I defy you to watch him in concert with an orchestra and not be totally thrilled at his commitment, musicality, and, most critically, his superb communication with his fellow musicians and the conductor. I had the absolute pleasure of watching him guest with the Berliner Symphoniker years ago, in two separate programs. I’ve never seen anything like it since.

    And before anyone chimes in with “Ah, but a timpanist has less notes, therefore it’s much easier to memorise that part”, consider the following:
    – having less notes can in some instances make things far harder to memorise, as anyone who’s memorised anything can attest. Rests are not that much easier to memorise than notes.
    – as a timpanist, there is no one to help you. You have no ‘section’, you are physically separated from everyone else, you are at the very back of the ensemble, and you are the only one playing a part that’s even close to what you have in front of you. It’s challenging enough counting rests as a timpanist, let alone memorising them, knowing full well that you are completely on your own if anything goes wrong.
    – timpanists can and are often required to make A LOT of noise. If you are going to enter with solo entries at dynamics almost matching the rest of the orchestra combined, whilst in full view of everyone in the room, (as I saw Stephan do in Beethoven #9 and Shostakovich #11), you’ll need to be extra confident that you have a perfect knowledge of the score.
    – watching Cürlis perform, it was very obvious that he had also memorised the parts of all the instruments he entered with, for every single entry in every piece. That was the best part about witnessing his playing: an active chamber music approach to every note he played, in full communication with his fellow musicians, unencumbered by this largish flat panel we so often rely on.

    It was very compelling.

    An entire orchestra performing like that would be something else entirely.

  • Anon says:

    Frankly, this is just another desperate ploy by an orchestra that always errs on the side of being trendy at the expense of actual substance. When Collon lands another job, he’ll be sure to let this vanity project go. The management of this orchestra is so worried about public image and PR campaigns that they forget all this ‘speaking to the listener’ is really just done by a few posh kids with zany haircuts.

  • Daniel Rye says:

    I find some of the arguments here about increased communication and musical freedom resulting from playing from memory a little dubious. 90% of communication in an orchestra is done by listening, which is why a good orchestra can still get (relatively) good results with a bad conductor. And for some musicians, whose memorisation skills might not be so good, and whose part might not be particularly melodic, the concentration required trying to remember the notes could actually inhibit musical freedom.

  • Observer says:

    Speaking as past president of the board of a professional ensemble: Who is going to fund the extra time needed for musicians to memorize their scores? It would entail a great deal of time outside rehearsal, particularly for music that is not in the core repertoire.

    Speaking as a professional chorister: the choir in which I sing does not perform from memory. Again, money is a factor. Memorizing vocal music requires memorization of words in multiple languages. BTW, at the most recent Chanticleer concert I attended (2013), they did the first half from scores and the second half (pop and spirituals) from memory. I did not detect any difference in intensity or coherence.

    Obviously opera is different — the singers are actors in character. Equivalent to stage actors in a spoken play.

    The Mozart 40 story feels a little gimmicky to me, especailly since they are taking the trouble to publicize it and make it the most important aspect of the performance. Is it? Should it be?

    On the other hand – A few years ago (as a chorister) I participated in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony 9. We were asked to memorize the 15 minutes or so of choral music in the fourth movement. It is an amateur chorus, therefore no need to pay the singers for their extra time outside rehearsal. 🙁 There was no publicity about the fact that we were going to sing from memory. However, the reviewer did note (in a glowing review) the effect of the 150 singers standing en masse to deliver those profound words, all from memory. (I have real difficulties with memorization, and I struggled through the whole thing; the performance was unpleasant for me rather than joyous, as I had hoped it would be.

    • Allie says:

      Observer, I’ve been a professional orchestra musician for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never HEARD of an orchestra that funded “extra time needed” for musicians to learn or memorize their parts outside of rehearsal, no matter how difficult the repertoire is on a given week.

      Orchestra musicians are expected to show up at the first rehearsal of any given week, ALREADY HAVING LEARNED THEIR PARTS AT HOME. They spend hours every day practicing OUTSIDE OF REHEARSAL. If they don’t, they can’t maintain the high level of technique demanded by their jobs.

      Some of the more difficult modern compositions actually require memorization in order to be able to look up at the conductor enough to catch a needed beat or cue. These works can be so complicated that, if you look up at the conductor for a moment, you can never find your place on the page again. The only way to handle it is to memorize it.

      And that’s expected.

      One of the best teachers I ever studied with really opened my eyes on the whole issue of memorization. I played a few pages of a concerto for him, from memory, and felt quite comfortable in my knowledge of the score. I’ve never had trouble with memorization (which, by the way, is a skill that can easily be taught–the caveat is that different people memorize in different ways).

      Anyway, my teacher asked me to start in the middle of a specific phrase, from a specific note–and I had no CLUE where he was talking about. He played the note for me. I still didn’t know. He played the first few notes, and I still wasn’t sure.

      He said, “then you really don’t have it memorized, which means you really haven’t learned it thoroughly. If you have it thoroughly learned, the memory is automatically there. You should be able to start on any note, in any phrase, ANYWHERE in the piece, and be able to continue on for the rest of the piece with ease. It’s not good enough to be able to start at the beginning of the piece, or even the beginning of a section. You need to be able to start ANYWHERE.”

      It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

      • andrey says:

        OMG, you reply is pretensious on SO many levels… your insisting that a lot of part needs memorising before the first orchestral rehearsal is just ridiculous. And your story with your teacher makes me feel bad for him – trying to put up a show about a dubious concept where there was none needed.

  • Participant says:

    If people believe that playing from memory would have an identical result to playing from sheet music then yes, why? But obviously this won’t be the case. The great Smetana quartet played exceptional concerts from memory, and as one comment states – watch a great orchestra play a familiar piece – there is lots of communication going on. It creates an incredible freedom of sound and flexibility in rubato and phrasing that can’t be achieved by a heads down ensemble. Whatever people think of the idea, surely it’s only right to reserve judgement until after the performance? Having a piece of music committed to memory, whether using the music or not, is a wonderful way to launch into a performance, speaking as a performer.

  • Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

    Observer, don’t all choirs now sing Beethoven 9 (and Mahler 2) from memory? And aren’t we all clear that if we could, we would sing everything from memory?

    • David Hutchings says:

      BFC recently (couple of years ago) attempted St John Passion from memory. I think they ended up using music in certain chorales but as a spectacle, and one which included choreography, it was stunning.

  • Halldor says:

    The amateur orchestra in which I play has a blind bass trombonist who plays everything – including full-length Mahler and Elgar symphonies – from memory. A really fine musician: he’s also performed the Paul Creston concerto. However, he has difficulty with programmes comprised of many short works – much more problematic to commit to memory.

  • Bigmac says:

    Well said anon!!
    This is a gimmick to give the arrogant impression that the Aurora Orch are superior and a cut above any other.
    I only hope they go astray in performance! Then they will realise the usefulness of having the dots in front of them……At least Collon could shout out letter or bar numbers…….
    On the other hand, who cares …….
    It’s all to do with Collon self promotion and hype!

  • Participant says:

    I’m very surprised at the vitriol. As Allie says, if you really know a piece of music, it is memorised. Full stop. A Mozart symphony, quite frankly, is not such a big deal to memorise. First movement in sonata form, slow movement and minuet/trio in the usual form and the last movement more often than not in sonata rondo form. The keys that the piece would go through are predictable, and any anomalies and exceptions stick out like a sore thumb; impossible to forget. Bass lines are memorable, everyone could sing the melodies through Mozart 40. The harmonies are a result of these and lead very naturally from chord to chord. The inner part writing is so good that the voice leading just happens without jumps and awkwardness. The players on stage, every single one of them, are fantastic. What’s for them to forget? It’s not Turangalila! I’ve seen the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra play from memory – in the same concert they played other pieces with sheet music. With the music they sounded absolutely fantastic but without stands and music in the way it was astonishing. The excitement, the sound, the unity and drive were a very different level. Think what you may about this being a vanity project/publicity stunt, but it’s undeniable that the musical experience for both listener and player will be very different.

  • David Pickett says:

    An interesting divide here, it seems to me, between those who actually play music in ensembles and those who dont. Of course, Mozart 40 is not hard to play from memory — this is self evident to the musicians among us — and doing so does potentially promote a better experience for all.

    Also interesting is the fact that it is easier to play without looking at the part if it is open on the stand as a kind of safety harness.

    Arguments that playing music from memory is difficult, are like the one that claimed that only a Mozart could come along and memorize the Allegri Miserere. That myth was current for years, but when one actually looks at the notes it becomes apparent that most of it could be written down at dictation by the average Music A-level candidate.

  • @e9music says:

    Having been at the prom on Saturday night I think Aurora Orchestra have been absolutely vindicated. Stunning performance, and wonderful engagement with the piece and with each other.

    • John Harte says:

      Many thanks – and particularly nice to have a post- as opposed to pre-concert review on this intriguing thread. We hugely enjoyed the experience from a musical point of view, and players seem to have relished the new possibilities which the memorising process opened up. So glad you enjoyed it, and I hope that at least *some* other posters above might find themselves pleasantly surprised by the recording of the concert on iPlayer. Those interested in hearing from the musicians directly might like to watch the Proms Extra programme at the weekend, which we believe may include some interviews with Aurora musicians about music and memory.

      For those querying the motivation behind the decision to present the piece from memory: just for what it’s worth, this was an artistic choice, made with the performance aesthetic in mind, and based on a desire to infuse the whole programme with the spirit of Benedict Mason’s extraordinary ‘Meld’ (which requires all 93 players to perform from memory because of the complex demands of choreographed movement which it places on them). Interestingly the memorisation didn’t even get a mention on Radio 3 (!), which I’d humbly suggest might have been an essential element in making this an effective PR gimmick. 🙂

      John Harte (Aurora Orchestra)

  • Thomas Barber says:

    I’m a member of Aurora and I was lucky enough to be playing in this concert. The experience of playing without the parts was liberating, exciting and a challenge that we all thoroughly enjoyed. The benefits of playing from memory in extracting the most from the music and communicating that to each other and to the audience were so clear to everyone involved that I can only assume that those people who can’t see the point must never have tried it themselves!