Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A Great Event: Nature's Great Events

Bristol’s Colston Hall has been at the forefront of its busy music scene for countless years and after a number of rebuilds during its life, the latest upgrade – a £20m extension of glistening foyer, box office, dining, bars and performance spaces – is just the latest facelift. It’s an impressive creation and is a fine improvement, giving the old hall (with its renowned acoustic) the kind of entrance space it deserves, bringing it well and truly into the 21st century.

Ten days of celebrations are underway with over 2000 local musicians and performers involved in heralding the next stage in the venue’s story. With this in mind, the organisers wanted something special for the centrepiece event and they came up trumps with Natures Great Events.

Screened on BBC One earlier this year, Natures Great Events was classic Natural History Unit television, charting more wonders of the world’s animals, their behaviours and the delicate surroundings that form an essential part of their very existence. Supplying the music for the series were Bristol based composers Barnaby Taylor and Ben Salisbury who have each cut their teeth on Natural History productions. For Natures Great Events though, the pair very much took a leaf from George Fenton’s score pages and gave the often jaw-dropping images suitably emotional and epic music. With that in mind, it seems a logical idea to take that music into the concert hall and, played along with specially edited images projected onto a big screen, make a spectacle of it all. And that’s exactly what happened tonight at Colston Hall.

It was very much a once in a lifetime opportunity and the sell out crowd were treated to a specially created six movement symphony of sorts, with conductor William Goodchild leading the brilliant BBC Concert Orchestra through Barnaby and Ben’s music and if that weren’t enough each movement was introduced by none other than Sir David Attenborough himself. It was quite bizarre to sit and listen to ‘The Great Man’ – as he was introduced and described to us – so famous is that soft, well considered voice. To have him there was a real treat and he received a standing ovation before he’d even done anything, so high is the regard and affection with which he is held.

Natural History film is always the most real drama a composer could wish for when creating music and the array of scenarios presented here offered the composers the chance to be creative, comedic, dramatic and emotional. Frolicking cubs were underlined with jovial refrains on mallet percussion, mating Dragonflies with quasi-celestial twinkle, while Lions - near-starved and barely clinging to life - were met with emotive woodwind passages. It was the wide open vistas of the great African plains, grasslands and icy oceans though which saw the orchestra take flight, offering grandly sweeping gestures for strings and brass, while the larger, more ferocious sights gave rise to swathes of percussion. ‘A Heavy-weight Battle’ in Movement II (The Great Flood) was one such example, while the militaristic might of the final movement (The Great Tide) in which a ‘Super Pod’ of Dolphins, joined by sharks, whales and sea birds, mass an attack on millions of sardines off coast of South Africa, was a stunning display. It truly was a battering, with infectiously rhythmic percussive lines – performed with support from local percussionists – and was a brilliantly rousing finale to the piece. A similar scene was featured in The Blue Planet and I thought it would be hard to top Fenton’s brilliant cue ‘Sardine Run’ and while it differs greatly – being more of a 'march to battle' – it managed to raise the hairs equally.

The music and images of course went hand in hand, one supporting the other in all kinds of ways, and as often happens with this kind of performance, it was easy to forget you were in the presence of a live orchestra, so engaging were the images on screen. The sight of huge Humpback Whales feeding on herring by literally scooping entire schools of them from the surface with their bellowing mouths was just one of the many amazing highlights... The lasting shot for me though is of two Polar Bears, seemingly marooned on a lone iceberg in the Arctic Ocean; a poignant note about the future of the poles and the effect global warming will have on those beautiful beasts…

So with more standing ovations and a word or two from the composers themselves, the orchestra went on to perform a specially-composed encore. Played along with footage of the making of the series and introducing the amazing cameramen responsible for what we had seen, it was a free-spirited, celebratory denouement.

Natures Great Events really was Bristol’s great event and those of us lucky enough to attend were left in no doubt that this city really has a lot going for it right now. Congratulations to all involved and let’s hope Colston Hall can offer its stage to more events like this in the future.

You can find out more about upcoming events at the new look Colston Hall by visiting the venue’s website – www.colstonhall.org

With thanks to Paul Preager at Colston Hall