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No conductor, no CDs, no compromise: the European orchestra tearing up the rule book 

Musical revolution: the risk-taking musicians of Spira Mirabilis
Musical revolution: the risk-taking musicians of Spira Mirabilis Credit: Giancarlo Pradelli
Spira Mirabilis is the orchestra for which artistic truth is everything. Ben Lawrence pays it a visit at its north-Italian home 

Amid the red-plush grandeur of La Scala, something is stirring. Milan’s grand opera house may not be known for sowing the seeds of musical insurrection, but one single-minded group of musicians has made a bid for artistic freedom and have entered the arena on their own terms.

The night I see Spira Mirabilis perform Beethoven’s Eroica at La Scala, it is clear that I am in the middle of a very subtle revolution. The sound is recognisable, but the intimacy and psychological depth of the performance is unlike anything I have ever heard.

Spira Mirabilis was formed in 2007 by like-minded musicians who wanted to explore orchestral music in a way that might be considered an anathema to many players. Without a conductor, they undertake a series of intense rehearsals with the purpose of excavating its deeper meaning. They have enjoyed a certain notoriety as the orchestra without a conductor and yet Lorenza Borrani, one of its founder members and the de facto leader of the first violins, thinks that the media’s insistence on using it as a gimmick is a distraction.

“We are not renouncing the figure of the conductor,” she says. “We just want to take over the responsibility of taking on the score, which is missing when you have a conductor.

“We have to get rid of reading a score in an automatic way. When we are rehearsing, we try to question everything, even if it feels wrong. When you feel secure, you have to take risks to try and find a way to discover new corners.”

Spira Mirabilis Credit: Giancarlo Pradelli

Spira Mirabilis is made up of musicians mostly but not exclusively from EU countries. Many play in some of Europe’s finest orchestras, while some have non-musical day jobs (one current player is a masseuse). They rehearse up to six times a year in the unremarkable town of Formigine just south of Modena in the wealthy Emilia-Romagna region of Italy.

The town has been its home due to the foresight of one Paolo Negro, an ambitious local government officer who responded to Timoti Fregni, a founder member, after he wrote begging letters to around 30 other local government workers asking for free rehearsal facilities and accommodation. In Formigine, they were offered the free use of a sports hall and a dormitory in the top floor of an old people’s home. Certainly, there is a sense of spartan perseverance in Formigine.

The 40-odd musicians, aged between 20 and 40, live frugally and the meals prepared by the local trattoria seem to consist exclusively of pasta bakes and ratatouille. I wonder about intimate relations and am told firmly that no one has any time for such frivolity when rehearsal time is so precious. For the La Scala concert, they rehearse day and night over a week, so intense is their commitment to finding the essence of the music. Indeed, it is obvious that the musicians are not here for a holiday.

When I see them rehearsing Eroica (both for a local concert and for La Scala, which will take place two days later) in the sweatbox atmosphere of Formigine’s leisure centre, things are incredibly focused and intense: there is a discussion about the shape of the orchestra’s layout (if, in fact, you could call Spira Mirabilis an orchestra – they see themselves as a group of professional musicians working together in a sort of musical laboratory) and much debate about the musical gestures needed to make the Eroica complete. Will the sound of the staccato carry enough? Can the double bass be heard?

The Spira Mirabilis orchestra performing at La Scala in Milan Credit: Giancarlo Pradelli

Philosophical questions are left trailing while Borrani’s crimson sound machine emanates either a jagged-sounding applause or displeasure, in the form of a window being smashed. Borrani remarks that it is “about people finding the project rather than the project finding the people”. There is no audition system because it is deemed to be a barrier to the collective process.

The mission of Spira Mirabilis may sound cranky, cultish even (they once spent 90 minutes discussing one bar of music), but it is more that they are simply devoted to a truly democratic process. Andrea Mascetti, a Swiss violinist with the group since the beginning, explains: “We never vote because, if the majority voted, there would always be people who didn’t agree with a decision. We then leave it and come back and finally we find another way in which to reach an outcome.”

You could argue that this represents the worst sort of Brussels filibustering, but the end result is always clean and cohesive. The problem is that, in a democracy, some animals are more equal than others. I wonder how a gifted but less forthcoming musician might feel about contributing to a discussion in an atmosphere of highly charged creativity.

“Human nature is such that there are always shy people in the group who won’t speak up in front of other musicians,” says Mascetti. “So what we try to say is that every opinion is welcome, but not every opinion carries the same weight. I feel an opinion should come from the score, perhaps what the composer intended.”

To date, Spira Mirabilis’s body of work has consisted of small-scale pieces such as Schubert’s Octet in F Major and Mozart’s Gran Partita. Would they ever take on something more epic in stature, a 19th-century work, for example, written at a time when the conductor’s input was at its height and he was responsible for harnessing the kaleidoscope of sounds that unfurled before him?

“We have decided not to take on work by Mahler or Bruckner, [as they were] written with a conductor in mind,” says Mascetti. “We have played some very complicated music, though, such as Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, which is easier without a conductor because the change of tempos is hyper difficult.”

Spira Mirabilis is named after the geometrical figure that grows but always closes in on itself; it suggests that every element is of the same value no matter how big or small its dimensions. This could account for why the players see the La Scala gig as of equal importance to a community concert at Formigine leisure centre.

Everything has its place within a loosely constructed framework of radically democratic opinions. For example, they have made the decision not to record their concerts on CDs. This is partly because of their belief that there is no such thing as a definitive performance, and that everything will always be a work in progress.

“We have been asked to make recordings, but it doesn’t represent what Spira is,” says Borrani. “You can’t feel the process of creativity in a recording. For us, when we get together, it is a life project. Also, there are thousands of recordings of Eroica. You don’t need another one.”

Nevertheless, their reach is spreading. The mayor of Formigine has announced a foundation school, inspired by Spira Mirabilis, which will make the town a centre of musical excellence. They are travelling widely, too, and in May will be on London’s South Bank, where they will perform Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. A full-scale opera, possibly Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, is a future passion project.

However, for all their success, there is a distinct sense that Spira Mirabilis will not move far from their core beliefs. Their refusal to satisfy the demands of larger concert halls means that concert bookings are limited. Mascetti explains. “The money for culture is decreasing every year and many concert halls want a soloist. To sell a [large] concert without a soloist is very difficult. Those sorts of concerts almost don’t exist anymore.”

They will not compromise. “If someone asks us to perform two pieces because they have an hour to fill, we will say no. They try to push you in a different way and, of course, it is not easy to sell Spira Mirabilis. But they just have to accept what we do.”

Spira Mirabilis will perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall on May 15. Tickets: 020 3879 9555; southbankcentre.co.uk