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Tenor Allan Clayton and the Aurora Orchestra performing Winterreise at Saffron Hall on Saturday March 9

An exciting and unique experience is to be had at Saffron Hall on Saturday March 9 - a performance of Schubert’s monumental song cycle Winterreise which breaks all the moulds.

The concert at the Saffron Walden venue will see acclaimed operatic tenor Allan Clayton perform alongside the Aurora Orchestra for a 21st-century take on a timeless classic.

The orchestra’s creative director, Jane Mitchell, has been working as co-producer alongside Clayton to bring to life an arrangement of Winterreise (Winter Journey) made by Hans Zender, who set out to challenge the traditional setup of “grand piano and white tie” – in other words, a ramrod-straight singer alongside a large Steinway.

In this production, Clayton will be accompanied by a 22-strong ensemble of musicians from the innovative Aurora Orchestra.

“As well as the usual string and wind players, the group includes more exotic instruments like harp, accordion, guitar and saxophone,” Jane told me. “This allows them to create big, new colourful sounds to bring the story to life.

“Some of the players double up on even more unexpected instruments like wind machines and harmonicas!”

Acclaimed tenor Allan Clayton has joined forces with the Aurora Orchestra to perform Schubert’s monumental song cycle Winterreise
Acclaimed tenor Allan Clayton has joined forces with the Aurora Orchestra to perform Schubert’s monumental song cycle Winterreise

The Aurora Orchestra is renowned for giving performances from memory, rather than playing from what Jane called the “barrier” of the music stand, and they and Clayton will do the same for much of this production.

“This gives the performers so much more flexibility and the ability to make eye contact and interact with each other,” she said. They are also able to move around the stage and act out incidents within the journey.

Won’t this new take on a treasured classic be seen as sacrilegious by those who have grown up with the original?

“Well, that’s always a risk, but we keep the traditional listener very much in mind – and many of the ideas about staging and performance have come from Allan himself, who has a great deal of experience in performing Winterreise ‘straight’,” said Jane.

“We are certainly not saying this is the only way it should be done and there will always be plenty of opportunities for people to see and hear the more traditional version!

“Zender’s alternative provides a great way into this amazing music for people who might never go to a conventional Lieder recital.”

Wilhelm Müller’s original poems tell of a young man who, rejected by his sweetheart, wanders through a snowy landscape, shunned by people and dogs alike and seeming to seek oblivion.

The darkly nihilistic mood is nonetheless tempered by flashes of happy memories and fond imaginings, and by a final otherworldly resignation as he meets a fellow winter traveller – in the unlikely form of a hurdy-gurdy man.

Other filmed and semi-staged versions of Winterreise have been seen in recent years and I asked Jane why she thought this strange tale has held such a fascination for generations of musicians.

“I think it is the emotional intensity of the story which invites people to revisit it,” she said. “The songs still feel new and fresh and performers want to put that freshness across.

“There is also a raw quality and a simplicity to so many of the songs. They are like folk songs in the directness with which they speak to you.”

The Aurora, founded in 2004, is the resident orchestra at the South Bank Centre and resident ensemble at London’s King’s Place. This collaboration with Clayton, whom Jane described to me as “one of the greatest singers around today”, is a great opportunity for them to become involved in a musical landscape less familiar to them.

Winterreise is monumental,” said Jane. “I know that Allan sees it as being like a marathon that needs to be trained for.

“For us, we have Schubert’s symphonies, of course, but this is a chance to get into the deeper emotional territory of his songs. We are cheating our way into Schubert!”

Clayton, meanwhile, brings to bear experience from every walk of musical life. He is a renowned opera star - his Peter Grimes, given in Madrid, London and New York, has been described as heartbreaking and supremely lyrical - while at the same time touring Australia only last year in a dramatic interpretation of Winterreise with pianist Kate Golla.

The combination of theatricality and deep musical insight makes him perfect for this assignment.

Jane told me the Aurora Orchestra are hugely looking forward to returning to Saffron Hall, where they have played several times before.

“It’s a great place to perform, with a great acoustic, and so friendly,” she said. “We think of it as a home from home.”

I asked her why, in a nutshell, people should go to Saffron Hall on March 9 to be immersed in Schubert’s dark but redemptive masterpiece. Her answer? To be moved.

Go to www.saffronhall.com for more details and to book.

Richard Allaway is chair of the music@stansted concert series and of the Harlow Symphony Orchestra.

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