2001: A Space Odyssey Live concert
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre
(7 April 2011 performance)

The Royal Albert Hall’s Films With Live Orchestra series — in which an orchestra provides full accompaniment to a film that has been specially prepared with an effects and dialogue only soundtrack — follows a predictable model: watchable blockbuster productions with strong intergenerational appeal. The prominence of science-fiction and fantasy-adventure films isn’t unusual given that so many of these superblockbuster films (already huge audience favourites) appeal to a nostalgic fondness across the board for old-fashioned family entertainment. The screenings of recent years illustrate this. In 2010, over two warm evenings in late September, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy The Return of the King (2003) was screened with accompaniment by the London Philharmonic (this concluded a small cycle of one-off annual events which began in 2009 with The Fellowship of the Ring); this June, the R.P.O. continue their Film Music Gala with a farrago of greatest-hits cues taken from the populist works of John Williams (Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter), Hans Zimmer (Gladiator) and in collaboration Klaus Badelt (Pirates of the Caribbean), Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), and James Horner (Avatar); and in October, Germany’s N.D.R. Radio Philharmonic perform Don Davis’ score for The Matrix (The Matrix Live, 23 October 2011), though I’m skeptical that even live accompaniment can scale the iconographic and immediately more gratifying sounds of the Propellerheads, Rage Against the Machine and Rob D. Classical musicians may finally differ on the artistic validity of these “special presentations,” and anyone who shares my interest in the performances of key orchestra players will know that a few onstage can at times appear thoroughly underwhelmed by such affairs, some of them apparently dozing; but these projects, often mammoth undertakings requiring the assistance of the releasing studio to produce special prints, seem to delight us all and the best-remembered events of recent years have to my mind been at the Albert Hall.

While the setting for the L.P.O.’s performance of The Lord of the Rings was the world of mostly middle-aged, middlebrow, quiescent out-of-towners, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — which premiered at Festival Hall twelve months ago on June 25 and plays here again now — opened against a clamorous but friendly backdrop, the village hall atmosphere and turbulent swell of the crowds on the sun-scorched Southbank in sharp contrast to the often sobering Friday night dash for taxis further west on the gloomy Kensington Road.

Dr Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

In proof of the fact that things are indeed done differently here, patrons kicked over wine cups and doors clattered mid-performance, at times catching the attention of players onstage. Yes, things are different here. In the Albert Hall I recall the one light source of real note came from the conductor’s video monitor in the form of a series of coloured streamers and punches — visual aids which helped the conductor, on that occasion Ludwig Wicki, to keep tempo with the scenes (this was barely a distraction, so low beneath the projected image that it sank into darkness, but it is one of the requirements nonetheless of conducting to picture). By contrast in Festival Hall, the resolution of the projected image was thinned out by the performers’ illuminated music stands, and much later during two of the film’s more intense sequences the Philharmonia settled back into a new darkness, which arrived from nowhere, for long (and completely natural) stretches of inactivity. What emerged was a conundrum. Was the film important? Was the stage important? Whether or not one attends these events to watch the film for all its subtle musical shades and powerful imagery — or alternatively the Philharmonia if one is concerned wholly with technique — is moot if aspects of the experience are determined beforehand by event organisers. We were to conceive of this event as neither cinema nor orchestration but instead something which engenders a new experience, one that precluded us all reclining in our chairs with an iPad in our hands and whistling for burgers. In this respect, the venue itself decided what it needed to give of two simultaneously running performances: orchestra over film, diegetic sound over choir, then film image over orchestral nothing. In other words, the concept of A Space Odyssey Live became simply, and collectively, “the event” and not as we’d expected “the film.”

All attention, therefore, went away from the screen and immediately on to the players. But this in itself was thoroughly worthwhile. The stand-out artist was Maya Iwabuchi. As principal of the first violin section and orchestra leader, Iwabuchi readied the orchestra in preparation for the film’s two overtures and led with a performance of quiet intensity, exhibiting overall a relaxed and intimate style that was technically compelling and continually encouraged (as well as rewarded) closer inspection; it was sometimes just as much fun to observe others keeping time with her (take for example Fiona Cornall in the second), as it was just to admire Iwabuchi’s painterly mannerisms and technique. Being seated not two rows away and positioned immediately in front of her as I was, it was some delight (at least to my untrained ears) to be able to pick out her lead from, say, the also excellent Imogen East or Choo Soong who were playing slightly to her left. Karen Stephenson (cello number two) was also an enjoyable presence onstage, as was Samantha Reagan and Jan Regulski of the second violins.

The Philharmonia Voices surprised us all, I think, with their portrayal of Ligeti’s mindfuck Requiem — I suspect there was nothing experimental about their performance, it was a faultless rendition, but in the flesh this cacophony of quivering voices from both sides of the stage, de Ridder delicately teasing out one layer from beneath the other, the requiem building until the female choir came to rest and the mad pitches of the male voices withered away into ringing silence, was enough to tip any drunk over the edge. Total heebie-jeebies. Characteristically audacious, Kubrick’s use of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz in the docking of the Orion spacecraft sequence is always delightful and the Philharmonia were outstanding on both occasions of its use here. Finally, when the third caption appeared (“Jupiter Mission: Eighteen Months Later”) and the adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayaneh ballet suite began, many in the room, including myself, seemed to tense. A mix of dislocation, lyricism and absolute yearning, the adagio reinforced the notion of the “space odyssey” of the film’s title (as Peter Krämer puts it “a steady process of separation”) — this exploration, this sense, of what it means to be a lone traveller in a desolate landscape.

So there was no denying the emotional effects and the instrumental force of the music, nor the brilliance of Iwabuchi and de Ridder’s (among others) performances. But although the Southbank Centre was good enough to partner with the B.F.I. and studio Warner Bros. on this one (with funding from the Royal Society), its understanding of “the event” as another real-world, real-life experience meant that the film sat alongside the orchestration, where in fairness I felt the orchestration should support and inform our experience, our feeling, primarily of the film. Still, I will always, always remember that wonderful opening performance. Back in 1968, audiences would have found their places in the auditorium as György Ligeti’s Atmospheres played from behind a screen, curtains drawn — but we were already seated, the conductor André de Ridder also already introduced, and everyone in attendance was busily awaiting the triumphant, space-filling fanfare of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra and the sight of that piercing sun rise above Earth and Moon. The overture at an end we allowed ourselves a moment of relaxation to tune out the environment; then it began: the leisurely Nature theme, played three times with horns, the metronomic pounding of the kettledrums, then full-on orchestration, the instrumental symphonic force of the piece cutting right into us (as Kubrick once said, “short-circuiting the rigid surface cultural blocks that shackle our consciousness”), arriving finally at that incredible C major chord sustained as the orchestra came to rest. Oh yes, this was close to an unmitigated triumph.

12 April, 2011


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