Saturday, 9 May 2009

Rolling out the Classics - Filmharmonic 2009

There is one permanent entry in my diary year after year that I always look forward to and can never bring myself to miss – Filmharmonic. I go along to the Albert Hall knowing fully what to expect – indeed this is my fifth year – as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra take to the stage to perform some of cinema’s greatest film themes. Before you open the programme you know you’re going to see the words Gladiator, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Mission: Impossible, Superman, Witness and Pirates of the Caribbean. These days you know you won’t see Rocky in the programme, but you know full well that Bill Conti’s rousing fanfare and theme will provide the encore piece. Does any of this matter? I used to think so, but I’ve come to embrace the annual dusting off of the classic film music repertoire. Why? Because it’s just so damned good.

There’s no doubt either that the performance won’t be up to scratch and this year it was largely agreed that the RPO excelled themselves with what I considered a really punchy performance. A few pieces in the past have come across somewhat lacklustre, tired even, but this year they were each performed with a lot of flair and power, particularly Williams’ glorious theme from Jurassic Park (though they still use the score with the wrong note at the start!), the obligatory Superman and Goodwin’s downright brilliant theme from Where Eagles Dare.

A highlight moment for me always comes with the guest conductors and while the producers rarely stray far from their usual contact list, it’s always a nice opportunity to a) see a composer conduct their own music, and b) hear something you haven’t heard live before. Last night saw David Arnold take to the stage at the Albert Hall for the first time in a few years. David would be the first to agree he isn’t really a conductor, but he kept the ensemble together – using a red pencil I might add – and appeared to thoroughly enjoy conducting his perky waltz from The Stepford Wives, an orchestral rendering of ‘You Know My Name’ from Casino Royale and the cue ‘A Night at the Opera’ from Quantum of Solace. While the former Bond snippet was obviously barnstorming, the real highlight for me was the latter dramatic cue and although it didn’t end with much fanfare, it was a riveting addition.

British Film and TV stalwart Debbie Wiseman is a permanent and very welcome fixture at Filmharmonic and she can always be counted on to bring her latest score pages – and a rowdy posse – with her. This year saw her lead the orchestra through a suite from Lesbian Vampire Killers - her most recent film score – preceded by a selection from Tom & Viv – her first. It was a nice touch making those career bookend selections and the former certainly went down well, with members of the film’s team – including director Phil Claydon – offering no end of support from their seats in the Grand Tier. I told Debbie I would make some noise after the suite, but it really wasn’t needed with them in the room! While the film itself has suffered very mixed reviews, there’s no doubt that the music is a triumph. The composer and director make a good team and I’m fairly certain it won’t be the last we’ll see and hear of them together.

As usual a few additional nuggets littered the programme, with a rendering of Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters title song leaving me slightly red-faced in the first half. While it featured very colourful orchestration and some great brass, it was all just a bit embarrassing frankly… I’ll never condone orchestral versions of songs. It really was something weird, and it didn’t sound good, particularly when it came to the point where people would normally shout ‘Ghostbusters!’ – that was left to the brass… oh dear.

What should have been embarrassing at the end of the first half was a selection of American TV Themes and while you’d be right in thinking it’s a bit of a stretch for a film music concert, it actually ended up being one of the best bits of the night. Opening with Bill Conti’s brilliantly applied themes for Dynasty and Cagney & Lacey (which was rightly met with a very big cheer and applause come the end), the ensemble presented Mike Post’s dramatic opener for LA Law, before ending with Jerrold Immel’s infectious Western-tinged theme for Dallas. I was a fan of TV Themes long before I discovered film music – okay, I was about 10 – and these four themes always scored highly for me. I do believe Conti’s Cagney & Lacey is a contender for ‘Best TV theme Ever’, and it was a giddy childlike pleasure to see and hear it played by a full orchestra.

So you see there’s always something to get excited about at Filmharmonic, even if you think you know what to expect. The hall was very full as it always is and when our affable host Tommy Pearson – who did a fine job as usual – asked if anyone hadn’t been before, I was surprised to hear a great many voices shout out. That’s a wonderful thing and indeed another reason why the RPO roll out the classics annually, because there’s always someone who is yet to experience the power of live orchestral music, and live film music at that. More of the same next year – May 14th 2010! Don’t miss it.

You can experience the delights of the Filmharmonic repertoire on a newly packaged triple CD set, available from the shop at Visit for information about the RPO’s next film music concert – ‘The Best of Bond’ – which takes place on Friday 13th November.

With thanks to Doran Harding, Debbie Wiseman and all at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

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