It’s my second time to Printworks. I’m here to see Aurora Orchestra’s Beethoven 5 theatrical ‘set piece’. I don’t necessarily feel like the target audience for this but I want to experience different formats – a useful way of seeing how the product is being packaged up for different audiences. Everything about that format is fair game. I want to be challenged.
I’ve written before about the experience of going to Printworks. The venue remains deeply frustrating. The walk from the entrance on the main road to the box office, security, toilets, and main venue takes as long as it does to go from Waterloo East train station platform to the stalls in the Royal Festival Hall. The gangways are nonsensical, the ticket checking process unnecessarily rigorous, and the bar and toilets a stupidly long way away from the performance area. In the former print hall (soon to be closed down because the surrounding area is being redeveloped) members of the Aurora Orchestra stand distanced from one another. Curly haired chisel jawed Nicholas Collon presides wizard like over the assembled musicians and crowd beating time, bathed in orange down light. The audience is considerable, filling out most of the space in the print hall. Everyone seemingly stands motionless looking reverentially at the instruments in directly in front of them. There is a sense that we’re looking up on (or down from the balcony) the conductor with an air of deference, this at odds with the egalitarian aspirations of the event – disciples paying homage to those magicking up the vibe. The acoustic is boomy, the audience oddly still, and the floor just a bit too sticky for me to move around. Given the relaxed vibe Aurora is looking to capitalise on here, I feel surprisingly tense.
People whoop appreciatively at the end of each movement of Beethoven’s 5th. Interspersed are ambient tracks written by multi-disciplinary artist Nwando Ebizie who in the pre-publicity blurb seeks to create an experience that ‘changes people’. As the orchestra steps off their plinths for a 15 minute off stage break, the audience murmur increases. Nwando Ebizie new music assumes background status. It is as though the audience is taking advantage of an interval, some heading out to the bar.
When the band returns for the second movement there’s a sense of relief. The audience quietens itself perhaps unsurprisingly given that the players are so close and to ignore them would be a bit rude. In this way I perceive a correlation with the more conventional concert space. Humans are oh so predictable.
Closer to the conductor the flabbiness of the live ensemble is exposed a bit. This is understandable – the orchestra is distanced further apart than they during COVID. But this is disappointing as though one of the spectacular miracles about orchestras is being sacrificed in favour of theatrics. Through this prism the musicians are actors playing roles, the audience too, to a certain extent. We’re all of us contributing to a vibe rather than marvelling at the wonder of live unamplified orchestral music.
It reminds me of the experience TV studios – the surgical process of pre-recording an entertainment TV show in front of a live audience. The atmosphere in the studio always felt artificial to me. Nothing spontaneous. Everything commanded and directed. Enthusiasm and appreciation turned on and off for the TV cameras. The audience never really seemed they were to see the entertainment, they were to contribute to it.
That’s not entirely the case here at Printworks, not by any means. There is live music here but amplification counter-intuitively distances me from the players. Contrary to the billing you cannot easily walk around the orchestra as they play because as this gig is sold out the pseudo mosh pit is full. And people it seems get far more irritated far more quickly when you keep saying ‘excuse me’ and walk in front of them. There is an etiquette here just as there in a conventional concert hall.
There’s a sense from some I talk to that people are here for the experience of Printworks. I’m reassured by one regular that the barrier-lined walkways and the endless grim faced security guards are all part of the ‘live experience’ people come for here. I’m not immune to the club experience. In my youth when I was thin, better looking and far more open to self-induced experiences this might have been an experience I’d have sought out. But my time stripped to the waist sweating on the dance floor is long gone. At 50 I value efficient ingress, clear signage, and an easy route home.
Aurora are good at marketing events. They know how to create a spectacle and how to get people talking. A big dystopian looking interior, clever lighting and epic sounds creates a potent theatrical sight that makes every photograph taken powerful heart-stopping stuff. But I’m not convinced the experience lives up to the imagery.
For me this isn’t Aurora at their best. Memories flood back of their St John’s Smith Square gig. Strauss and Brahms with the most playful and engaging set of programme notes. And the book they sent out to friends, supporters and journos packed full of stories to accompany their new season of concerts. Or Symphonie Fantastique partly choreographed with stylised costumes. That was innovation – it made me figuratively gasp in response. Putting a gig on in a theatrical space that is difficult to enter, where the acoustic is flabby and the front of house staff belligerent makes me sad. I hope this wasn’t conceived as an event to demonstrate relevance to a funding body – I get that it leads to fantastic imagery and that’s still valuable from a marketing perspective. On the plus side it’s an event where musicians are being paid (I hope including a bonus payment for them having to learn from memory). People are hearing Beethovens music who may not have heard if before (though I’m not sure he wrote it in such a way that it needed players being distanced in order for new listeners to appreciate it). Is it something that, as SBC claimed in a social media post, represents what classical music ‘could be’? I’m not convinced.