Backstage Pass – Aurora Orchestra

A look behind the scenes with Jane Mitchell, Principal Flute and Creative Director of Aurora Orchestra

I was one of the founding members of Aurora Orchestra and when we started my role was very much as the flute player. In the early days it was pretty much a “kitchen table” organisation and we deliberately kept things fairly low key in order to figure out who we were and what we wanted to do. 

I had always felt passionately about access for young people and so I got stuck in to organising our early projects with schools. We would also all pitch in with programming ideas and I found myself always bringing the ideas that involved collaboration with other artforms – early projects included workshops with puppeteers from the Little Angel Theatre, combining Debussy’s La Boîte a Joujoux with a magician and a commission from the Bristol School of Animation.

Our collaborative ideas grew bolder and bigger and by 2010 we launched a cross-arts series at LSO St Luke’s, moving to the Southbank Centre in 2016. At about this time, as the ideas had grown, my role had grown with them – pitching in ideas for pieces and collaborations now meant writing scripts, directing performances, steering teams of collaborators and working strategically on forward planning and the shape of the orchestra. All of the work I had done with the orchestra for young people felt completely integrated into this and so the role of Creative Director was created.

It is both a huge challenge and a huge advantage to combine this role with playing the flute in the group. The advantages come from a true understanding of how it feels to sit in an orchestra and what is possible. 

When our projects demand unusual elements from our players, I’m able to think carefully about how it will affect everyone and what we need to put in place to make it possible. It’s really hard to grasp the many technical (and emotional) requirements of an orchestra and so I’m grateful for the years of experience of sitting as a player myself. It can be hard to switch roles and be tuning a wind chord one moment, and instructing players where to stand the next, but my colleagues are wonderfully understanding, and I think they appreciate instructions coming from “one of them”.

When we programme our concerts, my job can involve a huge variety of tasks. It can mean months of research into a particular piece in order to write a script, or hundreds of conversations with a lighting designer, or site visits to unusual venues where we think we can present a symphonic work in a vibrant and interesting way, but only with incredibly detailed planning.

Once we have planned and programmed an idea, I spend a lot of time thinking about the role of the players. Performing from memory has become something we are well known for, and it has become such a brilliant tool when it comes to thinking about how you can present music to audiences in different ways. An orchestra without music stands is suddenly a group of people that can move about a stage, interact with actors, text, lighting and props and can appear anywhere flexibly and quickly. We have used this to break pieces apart and show what’s happening in the score physically, to spread out amongst audiences and create immersive symphonies, and to incorporate theatrical elements of storytelling. 

Our recent performance of The Rite of Spring at the BBC Proms last summer was in many ways a coming together of all of these elements. We’d always joked about it being a ridiculous piece to memorise, but we also always knew that if the opportunity came up, we would take it. When the BBC Proms asked us to do it, we didn’t really know how possible this would be, but it felt worth the risk. Alongside this we needed to create a first half to the performance, and we were given a completely blank slate to do this. We knew we wanted to delve into the score and show its inner workings, but we were keen to find a beautiful and striking way to combine this with the voices of the people who created the work and that first performance. We also wanted to give this world a visual language that could keep the orchestra front and centre but also cope with the scale of the piece. 

The idea of projecting imagery on the floor around the orchestra and actors emerged early on as a really good way of doing this – we then just had to find a way to make this work! Key to that project were the collaborators – I worked alongside co-director James Bonas, video designer Anouar Brissell and our conductor Nicholas Collon to bring all these elements together. At the later stages my job was to deal with the incredibly complex task of moving an orchestra of 100 about the stage – I spent hours thinking about cellos chairs and contrabassoon stools and playing with squares of paper and a model of the Royal Albert Hall stage.

We are currently in the middle of intense planning for our production of Winterreise. I am co-directing this with our soloist, British tenor, Allan Clayton and it is wonderful working with someone who knows the piece so innately and brings such insight to its emotional intensity. 

We are going to be exploring the relationships that emerge between singer and orchestra throughout the work and how these bring out the ideas of community and isolation that run through the piece. For this we are looking at to what extent people can be separated or moved about the stage and we have been working with lighting designer Will Reynolds to create the idea of a “village of lights” amongst the orchestra and filmmakers Stanton Media to evoke ideas around ageing, nostalgia and childhood through moments of home movies.

Speaking to a wider audience has become one of the most important aspects of Aurora’s programming. For me, this was always core to my role within the orchestra as I was so focused on reaching young people, and this way of thinking has massively influenced how I now help shape our work. In 2012 I began collaborating with writer Kate Wakeling and workshop leader Jessie Maryon Davies on our Early Years series, Far, Far Away. 

We wanted young people to feel joy, stillness, beauty and drama and to move, dance and feel all this wonderful music. Working with designers we are able to create these beautiful worlds in which the music suddenly carries all sorts of relevant meaning – whether it’s Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 conjuring up marching dinosaurs or the music of Fanny Mendelssohn helping children learn to ride bikes. The players are always front and centre to these shows – speaking lines and performing from memory.

Over the years we’ve become braver at realising that this approach to classical music can work for everyone. I’m definitely not saying that we all want to march as dinosaurs to Beethoven 7 (though I think most people would enjoy that) but in a world in which classical music is so revered, there is space for a little fun. 

I feel incredibly lucky to have evolved into the role of Creative Director at Aurora Orchestra. I think orchestral players are so uniquely placed to have brilliant insight and ideas about the music they know and love, and I can see that there are ever-increasing ways for players to take on roles where they can explore these ideas. 

Something I enjoy most about my job is not really knowing what the future might hold. I would never have predicted something like our The Rite of Spring performance 10 years ago and similarly, I would never have predicted the recent development of Aurora Classroom – resources we have created for teachers that provide fully planned music programmes for primary schools. I think it is important that we continue to develop work that reflects the time we are in, whether that is using new technology, experimenting with where music is performed or completely rethinking the role of an audience member. It feels like the key is to keep open and responsive,
and trust that the ideas will come!