I’ve mentioned my early obsession with television theme music when I was growing up; I’d sit with a tape recorder next to the television set and record tape after tape of themes. Of course I had favourites and it has transpired that many of them were composed by people I’ve since had the pleasure to meet, get to know, and whose music for the big screen I admire still. George Fenton is one such person whose career began on that box in the corner of the living room and his music for the likes of Bergerac, Telly Addicts and countless BBC News themes and stings most certainly appeared on my cassette tape ‘compilations’. George is an absolute gentleman and with an enviable career as a screen composer; he is without doubt one of the largely unsung heroes of film music. His early collaborations with directors like Richard Attenborough and Neil Jordan, followed swiftly by those with Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Andy Tennant have allowed the composer a lingering presence on screen, with assignments on boths sides of the Atlantic. His music, I find, is consistently good; it’s thematic, listenable, strong and varied – which is the hallmark of a great composer. Any film is in safe hands when George Fenton is on board.
Last night George was able to present a selection of his works at London’s Barbican Centre, with more than a little help from the London Symphony Orchestra. Ever humble, the composer/conductor seemed truly honoured to be able to stand before the illustrious band. The orchestra last worked with Fenton in 1993, performing the score to Attenborough’s Shadowlands and so it was something of a long-overdue reunion. From the podium, the composer presented his own music in his own understated way; this wasn’t a big showy event by any means, instead it was a safe and strong presentation of just really very good music. It was the personal touch that gave the evening a sense of warmth and intimacy, with George leaving the podium himself to bring on his soloist guests at times.
It must have been a difficult concert to programme, mainly because of the wealth of material composed over the last thirty years or so. That said it was a fairly inclusive set-list, with just a touch of the composer’s early small screen gems presented in a trio including the themes from The Jewel in the Crown, The Monocled Mutineer and The Blue Planet. The latter was of course the most recent of that selection and one of George Fenton’s biggest triumphs, the music itself being performed in its own concert tour in recent years. With that in mind it’s understandable that there wasn’t more from the groundbreaking BBC series being played at this concert – though a performance of ‘Sardine Run’ would have gone down very well I think.
The film selections that made up the majority of what remained took in many highlights and key collaborations in George’s career so far, with emphasis on his variety of style here and there. Sweeping, orchestral romance was a firm fixture with suites from the likes of Ever After and Stage Beauty whisking us off our feet, while the likes of China Moon and Land and Freedom offered more contemporary orchestration choices and Spanish hues respectively. The brass and percussion were able to exhibit their famously fine voices throughout, with Valiant being a brilliant second half opener, while first half closer Land and Freedom was positively Herrmannesque in places with crashing brass chords and all kinds of jarring harmonies.
As I said, soloists played a key role on the stage and the second half saw some stunning performances by Martin Robertson and Andrew Findon who took on the likes of Duduk, Chinese flute and Irish pipes in selections from Planet Earth (itself a moving suite), Beyond the Clouds and one of my all time favourite Fenton scores, High Spirits. John Parricelli and Tom Howe did the honours on acoustic guitars for Dangerous Beauty, a lovely suite and another highlight for me personally as I’ve enjoyed the score on album for many years (though I didn’t recognise the title in the programme as my album is called A Destiny of Her Own).
Singer Nicola Emmanuelle provided an edgy vocal for Le Vampire, a standout moment from the first half. The music was composed by Fenton for Neil Jordan’s 1995 film Interview With The Vampire, though it was replaced with a score by Elliot Goldenthal… It is a classic example of ‘why on earth?’ as the music is simply brimming with gothic romance and fire. I am a fan of the replacement score though, which is perhaps slightly edgier still; certainly more chaotic, but no less romantic in my view. Emmanuelle returned in the second half with a group of singers for the finale piece, from Richard Attenborough’s 1987 apartheid drama Cry Freedom. The music was a tour-de-force which saw the conductor leave the podium to perform piano and ‘mumble’ (as he put it) the end title song he wrote at the last minute at Attenborough’s request. It was a stunning end, with the voices of the passionate vocalists ringing out over the orchestra and the rhythm section inspiring many a toe to tap in the audience. George returned to the podium to bring the ensemble together (though they never missed a beat without him) for a thrilling cadence of percussion, brass and voices.
While my companion and I were sad not to hear a burst of Newsnight or The 6 O’Clock News as an encore (appeasing ourselves by humming it all the way to the pub), we did leave in no doubt that George Fenton is one of the industry’s strongest voices, and a composer who is sure to do marvellous things with music for a long while to come. Come on George, release a compilation album and include a few bonus tracks of news stings… please?
With thanks to Dvora Lewis PR.