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Road Trip
Track listing below review
Max Baillie (violin, viola, mandolin, percussion); Dawn Landes (vocals and guitar), Sam Amidon (vocals and guitar)
Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon
rec. 6-8 January, 13 April 2014, Kings Place, London, UK
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 632791 [67:54]

The British-based Aurora Orchestra with special American guests Dawn Landes and Sam Amidon take a ‘Road Trip’ through American music. Mixed among core compositions by John Adams, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland we find several specially commissioned arrangements. One is by Nico Muhly including his take on Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones. There are also two new works by Aurora member Max Baillie. This mix of established classical with new folk-inspired works serving as appetisers is very characteristic of the Aurora's fresh and revitalising approach. It's also reflected in the concert programmes of the orchestra under its founder and artistic director Nicholas Collon.

First comes Adams’s Chamber Symphony written in 1992 - a commission for the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players. The world premiere was actually given in The Hague, Holland by the Schoenberg Ensemble in 1993. Adams' original inspiration came from studying the score of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony whilst his seven year old son Sam was nearby watching cartoons on television. Although buoyantly good-humoured it’s a technically difficult work which Aurora performs often in concert. This certainly shows in playing of unquenchable vitality and enthusiasm. Especially enjoyable is the final track, Roadrunner — a jamboree of vivid colour and relentless rhythm.

One of Ives’s most performed works and one of his first to be published is Three Places in New England written principally between 1911/14 with some initial sketches begun as early as 1903. The third and longest movement The Housatonic at Stockbridge written in 1911 is played here in Ives’s revised 1929 version with reduced scoring for chamber orchestra. It was inspired by a walk the newly married Ives took with his wife whilst on honeymoon. The performance here creates a breathless, rather sultry atmospheric scene before the unexpected cacophonous episode at around 3:10 breaks the spell.

Copland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring is one of the twentieth century's best known works. It started life as a ballet commissioned by choreographer Martha Graham and was premiered in 1944. Rather than the orchestral suite the Aurora plays the original 1944 chamber version for 13 instruments. Appalachian Spring is magnificent and is presented in glowing colours and with a winning sensitivity. There's an irresistible quality to the penultimate movement with its famous Shaker hymn tune Simple Gifts. It's as compelling as I have heard.

Max Baillie’s two compositions for voice and chamber players — I Sallied Out and Passing Places — are interesting miniature mood-pictures but don’t really amount to much. Entirely different are the three traditional folk ballads superbly arranged by Nico Muhly — all satisfying works that I found utterly engaging.

Feeling rather introspective, the traditional English folk ballad Reynardine about a werefox who attracts beautiful maidens is a delight. It includes a moody vocal from Sam Amidon. Thought to have been brought to America by Scottish settlers the traditional folk ballad The Brown Girl concerns Lord Thomas who forsakes his impoverished sweetheart Eleanor for a Brown Girl with a dowry. Dawn Landes excels. She contributes a lovely rich and distinctive vocal that combines entrancingly with the string accompaniment. Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones from the 1983 album of the same name is presented in another of Nico Muhly’s arrangements. Simon wrote the road song for a girlfriend as they journeyed through New Mexico. Vocal soloist Sam Amidon who also plays guitar creates a haunting rendition of this folk-song. It lingers long in the memory.

This recording has crystal clear and well balanced sonics, and I found the well written booklet notes useful. This is an eminently enjoyable and fascinating release that makes me wonder what the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon will record next.

Michael Cookson
Track listing

Max BAILLIE (b. 1981)

Intro: I Sallied Out, for voice and chamber orchestra [1.05]
John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Chamber Symphony [22.20]
Traditional arranged Nico MUHLY (b. 1981)
Reynardine, for voice and chamber orchestra [2:58]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
The Housatonic at Stockbridge from Three Places in New England (1929 version with reduced orchestration) [4.17]
Traditional arranged Nico MUHLY (b. 1981)
The Brown Girl, for voice and chamber orchestra [5.57]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Appalachian Spring (original version 1944 for 13 instruments) [25.48]
Max BAILLIE (b. 1981)
Passing Places, for chamber orchestra [0.52]
Paul SIMON (b. 1941)
Hearts and Bones, for voice and chamber orchestra (arr. Nico Muhly) [4.50]