United Kingdom The Music of Bond – Film music from the James Bond series: Music from composers including John Barry and David Arnold, Lance Ellington and Emma Lindars (vocals), Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Nicholas Dodd (conductor). Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 29.10.2021. (SRT)
A serious symphony orchestra devoting an evening of their year to the music of James Bond?! Yes, really, and it’s a good thing; for two reasons:
Firstly, movie music was a serious sub-strain of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra’s season before the pandemic, and it is important to bring it back. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it’s a real audience-builder for them. The demographic of the audience is markedly different to their regular season concerts, and it draws in people who would never dream of going to hear Bruckner or Brahms. The atmosphere is completely different, too: these people don’t know the clapping rules, so they are perfectly happy to show their appreciation any time they feel it rather than, like the rest of us, having to sit on our hands until an approved pause. It is remarkably refreshing to seasoned concertgoers like me to spend an evening in an audience like this, too, because it reminds me how much of our concert behaviour is learnt rather than natural. And, now more than ever, we should all give a hearty cheer to anything that brings people through the door of a concert hall and sets them down in front of a full-scale symphony orchestra for the first time. Some even come in fancy dress!
And secondly, it is really good music, and I am not just saying that because I am a Bond nerd! The mainstay of the RSNO’s previous movie nights has been the music of John Williams, the symphonic sweep of whose scores lend themselves really well to the orchestral treatment; but composing greats like John Barry and David Arnold, who have left their mark indelibly on the Bond series, are every bit as skilled, so why shouldn’t their music get a similar chance to shine?
Naturally enough, it is John Barry’s music that dominated this programme, and the orchestra sounded as though they were enjoying playing it, with sugary sweet violins and sharp, percussive brass. The format of the evening needed a bit of work, though. Conductor Nicholas Dodd conducted the soundtracks for five James Bond films (from Tomorrow Never Dies to Quantum of Solace), so he knows what he is doing. However, he gave the strong impression that he wasn’t used to performing for a live audience, missing out on simple things like getting the orchestra to stand for applause. I am pretty sure that didn’t happen once in the first half and, before the interval, he played through the smorgasbord of tunes without a word of introduction or explanation. This rather killed the atmosphere in the hall, the audience unsure of how to react, and it stunted the singers a little, too, who seemed to be singing into a void rather than to a receptive crowd.
Things transformed in the second half, however. Dodd gave a brief chat to the audience, and just that little bit of social lubrication made a world of difference, the crowd shouting and cheering in a way that felt unimaginable in the first half. I wonder if somebody had a word with him in the interval? He also introduced the singers and gave them an opportunity to share a bit about their work, with a few little details that the crowd loved. In short, the second half had what the first half lacked: fun!
That said, not everything worked equally well. Singers Lance Ellington and Emma Lindars came to life after a stilted first half, but they face the enormous obstacle of performing songs that are indelibly associated with one particular singer. Who can dare have a go at Goldfinger after Shirley Bassey, or From Russia With Love after Matt Munro? They didn’t seem entirely sure whether they should make the songs their own or do a passable impression of the original performer, so some were an uncomfortable halfway house. More seriously, some just don’t suit the orchestral treatment. Live and Let Die and A View to a Kill need to rock, and there is a limit to how effectively that can be done by a violin section.
The best moments of the evening were when the singers got out of the way and the orchestra was left to dive into the unadulterated scores lifted straight from the movies. I loved the soft-focus haze of ‘All Time High’ from Octopussy, Barry’s own mid-film arrangement of the opening title song, with its soft violins and opulent flute line, and Arnold’s love music for Casino Royale had a beautiful sway to it, too. They could also generate excitement effectively, such as in the music for the abduction of the spaceship in You Only Live Twice or, best of all, the ski chase from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It is also great to see the orchestra putting out most of their regular musicians for this programme rather than bringing in the B-Team, a sure indication that they take the music seriously and, I suspect, really enjoy playing it. After all, when else would the entire trumpet section get to waggle their mutes so persuasively?