Saturday, September 13, 2014

Sci-Fi Classics with the SSO

I got a call the other day from the folk at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

"We've noticed that you've been to a number of concerts this year. We have a great range of concerts coming up in our 2015 season and we are wondering if you are interested in any packages?"

"Do you have any concerts with film music?" I reply.

"No, we are alternating between film scores one year and world and contemporary music the next. Are you interested in world music or jazz?"

Err, no, not really. Sure, they have some classical concerts that I might like, such as Holst's Planets, but not four concerts that I would shell out for right now.

Truth be told I've felt very lucky for the past couple of years and my bank balance could do with a break. This year alone I've been to the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular in Melbourne, the brilliant Robertson Conducts Williams concert with the Sydney Symphony and the same orchestra playing Gladiator live to the film.

And then there was tonight. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays Sci-fi Classics at the Sydney Opera House.

This was billed as a populist concert rather than Serious Music, but that's fine as I was in the mood for some fun. I've had issues with the SSO before, but then I heard just how well they can play under the baton of the current artistic director, conductor David Robertson.

Tonight's conductor was Guy Noble, who I've heard a number of times before and who is also an announcer of ABC Classic FM. You may have seen his face in the inflight audio section of the Qantas magazine as well. He's a bit of a showman.

I attended the concert with my brother Jon who has also developed a love of film music, though not quite at my obsessive levels.

Free programs were available in the foyer. The concert didn't quite follow the program, as there were some rearrangements and additions.

We were seated in the wings about the middle of the orchestra, level with the brass section with the small choir on our left and the conductor on our right. Most of the cheaper seats were filled, but I noticed a number of the pricier premium seat empty. Too expensive SSO!

Although our seating meant that the sound wasn't quite balanced it gives a great view of the orchestra itself, especially the energetic percussionists.

Unfortunately, it also meant that we could clearly hear the issues with the French horn section. It is obviously a difficult instrument to play. But their playing was, at times, atrocious.

As an aside why does the SSO so often hold night concerts? For those of us who have to catch public transport home it means we have to put up with drunk psychos who talk to themselves and complain about footy, toilets, Poms and Romans. Like the bloke sitting next to me just then.

Anyway, back to the horns. One horn player in particular hit a number of wrong notes, including during a solo. And it's not the first time either, I've heard this before with the SSO. I suspect that without Robertson's firm and respected hand that certain sections of the orchestra get lazy with music that they don't consider "real". I expect better from an orchestra that lauds itself as "world class".

The concert started with Goldsmith and Courage's wondrous and energetic main title from Star Trek: The Next Generation, complete with a tacky voiceover spoofing "Space, the final frontier..."

John Ottman's music from X2: X-Men United was somewhat lacklustre in comparison. Not in the same class as some of the other composers featured tonight.

Then followed a couple of classical items from 2001 - A Space Odyssey. Ligeti's Lux Aeterna consisted simply of otherworldly singing by the choir, quite interesting and 20th Century. Strauss' famous Blue Danube Waltz was well played by an orchestra which probably respects him more than the other composers of the night, but I hate Strauss. All of them. All the bloody waltzes. I hate waltzes.

More Goldsmith now with the End Title from Alien. I find the Alien soundtrack not the most pleasant listen, but I quite enjoyed hearing it here.

Whereas the last Aliens burst from chests the next piece was about one with a glowing torso. John Williams' Flying Theme from ET the Extra-Terrestrial was typically exciting and was played pretty well by a very busy orchestra, though again the brass section was a little lacking.

It's been years since I've heard Danny Elfman's Theme from Batman. The theme is quite simple and repetitive, but the orchestration and energy is what made this piece a very fun listen.

We had an addition to the program with Princess Leia's Theme from Star Wars. While the strings and woodwind played beautifully it was here that the horns most noticeably stuffed up with off key and double notes and it really detracted from the performance.

Also from John Williams' music from the Star Wars movies was Duel of the Fates, which heavily features the choir. I think the choir was probably too small for a proper rendition, but it was a thrilling way to end the session and go to the interval.

The conductor re-entered the hall to a roar of laughter, walking funnily and wearing the pale blue costume and yellow sash of Virgil Tracy from the Thunderbirds. He proceeded to conduct as if connected to marionette strings Barry Gray's March from Thunderbirds. I grew up watching reruns of the Thunderbirds at 6 am on Saturday mornings and there were many happy memories in this rendition.

Noble then stripped off his Thunderbirds costume to reveal a yellow Star Trek officer outfit. But the next piece predated that series. I've not listened to much of Bernard Herrmann's music, despite his position as one of the original greats of film music. The suite from The Day the Earth Stood Still was interesting, especially for its use of the theremin. This, for me, was one to see live and not for frequent listening.

I've heard a lot of variations of Ron Grainer's (and Delia Derbyshire's!) Doctor Who theme, especially as Alex likes to use it as settling music. None were like this, a funkified 70's band piece. Why they couldn't use one of Murray Gold's mostly brilliant arrangements I don't know, but I suggest they try.

The Doctor is a time traveller and the next rearrangement of the printed program perhaps reflected this with a couple of pieces, including Time from Hans Zimmer's score to Inception. It's very pleasant music, involving mainly the electric guitar and strings, but perhaps not great orchestral music. Noble asked for a show of hands from audience members who understood Inception, but seemed to doubt that anyone did. I will quite proudly then boast that I "got it" the first time I saw it. Well, recursion is a common programming and mathematical tool.

Back to John Williams with one of the decreasingly few pieces of his I don't have in my collection, a Suite from Lost in Space. It dates back to his very early years as a composer and while showing signs of his future sophistication it is not some of his best music.

Another shuffle and we revisited Jerry Goldsmith's Star Trek themes with music from Star Trek: Insurrection. Part of Goldsmith's brilliance is that he could compose wonderful melodies no matter how dire the movie and there is a rich selection to choose from in his Star Trek scores. The gentle melodic beauty of the Ba'ku village theme contrasts wonderfully with the exciting Enterprise main theme. Just a pity that the horn section again made errors.

The printed program ended with a suite by James Horner from Avatar. Some of the "ethnic" sounds were obviously difficult to reproduce and again the orchestra and choir seemed to lack balance, but it was still both fun to listen to and to watch the percussionists at work.

An encore was a given and what could it be (so correctly spotted from the score sheets by Jon) than the main theme to Star Wars? It was a bit hurried, but it served to demonstrate why John Williams is such a great composer. There is such a rich complexity to his music, so many things to listen for.

And so ended the concert. Jon reported to me that he heard some of the performers complaining earlier that they weren't playing "real music" and I think that attitude showed on the night. But despite my complaints, I didn't go into this performance expecting the same standards as Robertson's earlier concert and I did enjoy myself.

That's probably it for orchestral concerts this year, but we've already booked to see The Metropolitan Orchestra perform the Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular in Sydney in February. Woo oooh!

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