Having not been to an orchestral performance in quite some time and never to one of the “Pops” programmes, this collection of music with a celestial motif dubbed Space Classics was a delight.
Perhaps they should have called it “John Williams and Friends” though, since over half of the pieces they played were from Williams’ memorable film scores, and most of those in turn were from the Star Wars movies specifically. Actually, if there’s any criticism I could level at this rousing night of music it would be a mild conceptual fuzziness in its choice of works, using the theme of “space” to include scores from science fiction films and television (with the arguably tangential inclusion of Superman), some more classical material such as the pieces of Strauss used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as three movements from Gustav Holst’s astrologically-themed suite The Planets. In theory it might have been more tidy had the programme either been restricted to film scores (or music used in films, thus encompassing Strauss) or had more of a balance with the inclusion of further space-inspired classics… but why quibble? No one was complaining of the delightful final product, least of all myself. Still, it might have been nice to have brought in a few other great sci-fi movie scores in lieu of some of the less iconic Williams pieces from the Star Wars sequels, such as “Jabba the Hutt’s” leitmotif, for example.
The whole show was a tremendously jolly event from the moment of arrival. A half-dozen fully armoured Stormtroopers from the local Terror Australis Garrison of the 501st Legion (google them!) greeted the audience at the door of Hamer Hall, under the watchful eye of a resplendent and suitably towering Darth Vader. All these good sports were more than happy to pose for photos with the delighted crowd.
Once in the auditorium, proceedings were off to an excellent start in the hands of the affable and quite funny conductor/presenter Anthony Inglis, who guided the audience through the programme with disarmingly unaffected charm. Able to discuss the pieces with equal enthusiasm as both a musician and a genre fan, Inglis managed to air his Trekkie pride (etc.) endearingly without becoming embarrassing.
The performance itself was splendid. I have heard it said that sometimes this sort of event (perhaps not MSO Pops specifically) will have the orchestra perform backed by a screen upon which is projected silent clips of the film from which the music originated. Fortunately it was not the case here, as that would have merely been a distraction.
The sweeping power of some of the works was very moving and wonderfully brought to life, with excellent performances of the indelible main title piece from Star Wars, Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra: Sunrise” and Jerry Goldsmith’s main piece for the first Star Trek film were high points. The only performance which struck me as a little disappointing was that of Williams’ powerful “Duel of the Fates” from the first Star Wars prequel, the arrangement here somewhat drowned out the strings and simply couldn’t quite compensate for the lack of a choir.
There was some additional showmanship, with a relatively unobtrusive lightshow that worked to thematically match the music, such as an ominous red for the “Imperial March” of the evil Empire. Towards the end Inglis engaged in some further theatrics, such as gentle audience participation in getting us to launch Thunderbirds with the famous countdown, yelling “THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!” in unison. The final advertised item on the bill was Williams’ sublime theme from Superman in which our conductor half-heartedly tried to get the audience members to all enact the famous shirt-spreading moment of transition from secret identity to superhero, before declaring he’d show us “how it’s done” and, indeed, splitting his shirtfront to reveal the iconic S-symbol beneath, to much applause.
An encore was evidently anticipated, as after taking his bow and departing the stage, Inglis re-emerged a few moments later in full Jedi robes, brandishing a glowing lightsabre before ascending to his podium again and announcing that they would send us off with the full end-credits score to Star Wars. After a swelling phrase or two the audience chuckled with delight as a certain Dark Lord of the Sith made his reappearance, leading his squad of Stormtroopers down the isles in a processional march before taking up a perimeter at the foot of the stage. In what seemed an improvised moment, Vader turned around and pretended to conduct with his lightsabre for a few bars, much to the crowd’s amusement.
Finishing off with some small indoor fireworks, this thoroughly enjoyable evening had a very happy crowd spilling out into the foyers with many a grin to be seen.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Venue: the Arts Centre, Hamer Hall
Date/Time: Saturday 21 June at 7pm & Sunday 22 June at 2pm
Bookings: www.mso.com.au | or Ticketmaster on 1300 136 166