2001: A Space Odyssey: Live and on Film

United KingdomUnited Kingdom 2001: A Space Odyssey Live: Philharmonia Orchestra and Voices, Benjamin Wallfisch (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.10.2013 (GDn)

A ‘concert performance’ of a film is much like a concert performance of an opera, in that the music is extracted from its position within the drama and thrust into the limelight to fend for itself. 2001 is a great candidate for this treatment though, not least for the sheer quality of the music it employs. Having a live orchestra and choir perform with – I hesitate to say ‘accompany’ – the film highlights some curious anomalies, one of which is how little music there actually is in it. The ‘Saturn Expedition’ segment, which takes up approximately the middle half of the film – well over an hour – contains no music at all, a fact driven home by the presence of a mute orchestra and choir. But Kubrick’s use of silence only increases the power of the music when he does use it and for those set pieces, particularly the Stargate Sequence, live performers certainly add something unique.

The Festival Hall makes a great cinema. A huge screen hung behind the stage, wider even than the organ behind it. The Philharmonia Voices were positioned on the two angled wings of the choir stalls, ladies to the left, gentleman to the right. This gave an interesting antiphonal dimension to Ligeti’s Requiem, although the presence of cloistered choristers to the sides of the screen also gave an awkward liturgical feel to the proceedings. The wooden panelling behind the orchestra was blacked out, which dulled the acoustic a little, but focussed the eye. And all the performers had stand lights, minimising light pollution, although, inevitably, some bled onto the lower part of the screen.

A similar live presentation of 2001 is taking place in New York this season, so I’m guessing that somebody (Warner?) has developed a package to enable such performances. The film itself is looking immaculate. A soundtrack sans music has been mixed, and in surround sound too, and the orchestra and choir parts have all been prepared, with all the cues exactly as they appear in the film.

The Philharmonia was brave to take on this project; they’ve got form when it comes to Ligeti. In the early 90s, the orchestra gave a performance of the Requiem in the composer’s presence. The idea was that the same forces would then go into the studio and record the work for the Complete Ligeti Edition, then on the Teldec label. I was at the concert, sitting directly behind Ligeti and craning my ear to hear his comments about the performance. I remember him being (unusually) polite but non-committal in the vague compliments he paid the performers. It turned out, though, that he was disappointed and went on to veto the recording. He was right to do so because when the money was found to have another go, it was with the Berlin Philharmonic and Jonathan Nott; that’s now unquestionably the definitive version and a significant improvement on that early 90s performance. That said the main problem then was the singing of the Philharmonia Chorus. This isn’t really a piece for an amateur choir. Fortunately, the Philharmonia has since availed itself of a professional, albeit smaller chorus, the Philharmonia Voices. They excelled this evening, giving performances of the Kyrie from the Requiem and of Lux Aeterna that were close to ideal.

The recordings on the film’s soundtrack are another issue with a project like this. Kubrick not only had an excellent ear for repertoire choices but also for recordings, and any conductor and orchestra faced with the challenge of replacing Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic playing The Blue Danube  are up against stiff competition. The Philharmonia played well enough, but didn’t approach the finesse we hear on the original soundtrack in the music of either of the Strausses. I say the Philharmonia; about half the orchestra seemed to be deputies. Principal flute/piccolo was played by Katherine Bryan – some deputy! (Is she up for this chair? That would be a coup for the orchestra.)

Conductor Benjamin Wallfisch did an excellent job of keeping the music sounding musical while always synchronising it exactly to the visuals. Heaven knows how he managed that in the Ligeti, but it all worked. The Blue Danube sounded very constrained in the space station docking sequence; the synchronisation preventing him from giving the music the freedom and elasticity it needs. Fortunately the music appears twice, the second time in the exit music after the credits. This time there are no visuals, so he could really perform the music. It sounded like a completely different piece.

With all due deference to this evening’s performers, the real stars of this show were the audience. The house was full and the atmosphere was vibrant. Amazingly, many there seemed not to know the film. So there were big laughs for the few comedy moments – the protracted instructions for the zero gravity toilet, HAL’s transparent and delusion pleading as he’s shut down – and gasps at the (admittedly few) visual surprises. I felt a pang of envy for those who came to 2001 for the first time this evening. What an introduction to the film, and so much better than just watching it on the box.

Gavin Dixon