The much-anticipated arrival of Hollywood classics to the Exeter University Great Hall finally took place on Thursday. Pete Harrison brought a touch of West End showmanship to the occasion, introducing each piece with enthusiasm and humour and conducting the orchestra with passion. A career-break year for Harrison is marked by debuts with the Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia Orchestra, and the Russian State Symphony Orchestra. The packed crowd was made up of a younger demographic, the atmosphere was relaxed, and despite the distance between the players and my seat in row N, felt intimate.
The programme was fantastically varied and covered as many major Hollywood composers, both past and present, as is possible to achieve in a two-hour concert. Beginning with a few shaky notes from a lone horn, the texture of John Williams’s Jurassic Park theme was soon bolstered by the arrival of a rich sound from the strings – and so began two tremendous hours of music. Every iconic melody throughout the evening was blasted out with confidence and vivacity, or delicacy and emotion, as required. The trumpet fanfare synonymous with the roar of the Tyrannosaurus was followed by the inimitably horrific theme of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Three suites from the film were chosen: ‘Prelude’, the stabbing, grating ‘Murder’ cue, and the ‘Finale’. The prelude was as menacing and compelling as when heard in the film itself, the first violins excelling themselves with the staccato runs, tapping away at the audience’s ears. The iconic ‘Murder’ cue was accompanied by a visual display of strain from some of the players, the absurdity of the music without a visual context creating a ripple of laughter in the audience. A cellist’s dropped bow during the ‘Finale’ did nothing to spoil what was a superb set. Sticking with the theme of insanity, Howard Shore’s main title theme from Silence of the Lambs followed. A set of footsteps in the hall outside the concert added an improvised sense of atmosphere to what is already a tremendously evocative score.
Much of John Williams’s work is overshadowed by his many iconic scores, and Dracula is certainly one of his lesser known ones. It ended up playing second fiddle to Jaws, which followed. Nonetheless, his ingenious use of glissando, played with consummate skill by the violins, conveys much of the horror of Transylvania. The duh-dum of Jaws was, of course, well received. Harrison then introduced the ‘Athens Harbour Chase’ theme from the video game James Bond 007: Blood Stone. By its nature video game music has to be dynamic and powerful and was the only piece of the evening that heavily relied on a riding drum beat. Despite some looseness around the punches that constitute the ‘bondness’ of the theme, the piece was well-received. Slowing things down was Owain Bailey on the Fife playing the much beloved Shire theme set in a suite from The Lord of the Rings. Bailey perhaps could have savoured the notes a little more, as he played the fife with plenty of expression, but seemed a touch rushed in places. A quirky mix of themes from Harry Potter ended the first half, with ‘Hedwig’s theme’ sadly not making the cut. ‘Marge’s Waltz’, ‘A Bridge to the Past’ and ‘Harry’s Wondrous World’ formed the suite – with the last entry being the only truly iconic theme of the three.
The second half of the concert departed somewhat from the more universally recognised canon of film music, featuring John Williams’s Tin Tin, Alan Silvestri’s The Abyss, James Newton-Howard’s King Kong, Michael Giacchino’s Super 8, Jerry Goldsmith’s scores for The Mummy and Gremlins (featuring some cello spins), as well as the second video game entry, Shrek Forever After from composer David Buckley.
In the second half, however, the highlights were ‘This is going to hurt’ from Hans Zimmer’s score for the horror classic The Ring. Slowed down from its studio recording, the lead cellist Jesper Svedberg was less pressed to churn the gruelling lead ‘melody’ of the piece. The rest of the orchestra helped him create a palpable sense of dread that attests to Zimmer’s famed ability to create a thick and suffocating atmosphere. The second highlight was a return to fame with the encore: the title theme to ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ by John Williams. The rapturous calls for the encore were swiftly answered with one of the most instantly recognisable film themes of the 20th century, capturing the spirit of adventure and romance that made the Indiana Jones franchise so popular.
I have rarely been quite so thrilled by an orchestral performance. The players, revelling in the dynamics of each piece, moving from fun to fear to laughter, infected their playing with an enthusiasm I hadn’t yet encountered in them. There is an expectation, whether deserved or not, that classical music concerts are austere and serious events, and for some pieces this mood fits the bill, but I was beyond glad to see the orchestra adapt to the occasion. The whole evening was a triumph. The BSO’s next visit to Exeter is this coming Thursday for their performance of ‘Elgar’s Cello Eulogy’. If you haven’t already purchased tickets, I would highly recommend doing so. World class music is on your doorstep.
– by Thomas Gordon-Colebrooke