Symphonic James Bond

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
MSO Pops Series 2008

Sunday 30th March 2008

I’ve always loved the pre-credit sequence to the Bond film Goldeneye, but not for any of the reasons that you are thinking of. As much as I wish to live the Bondian lifestyle, Vodka Martinis (or should that be Martinus – plural?) are not my friend. I’ve made friends with Gin & Tonics on hot days. When the mood takes me, I have formed working relationships with red and dry white wines. And after a fine meal, I have enjoyed the company of a small tipple of port. But above all I enjoy spending time with a good beer. And that’s why I love Goldeneye’s opening sequence. It answers the question I’d wanted to know for years – does James Bond enjoy a beer? And I am pleased to say that the answer is YES!

In the opening scene at the Archangel Chemical Facility, as a swarm of Russian troops storm Bond and Alec Trevalyn’s position, Alec yell’s out “Closing time, James…last call!” Bond’s response is simple, but to the point: “Buy me a pint!”

So with that in mind, I had no compunction about stopping at P.J. O’Briens Pub for a pint of Kilkenny on my way the the (M.S.O.) Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Symphonic James Bond performance at the Melbourne Arts Centre. Suitably lubricated and relaxed, I made my way to the auditorium and found my seat. Sad as this may be, to amuse myself, while the orchestra took up their position, I had to assign each orchestra member, based on appearance, a character from a Bond film. In a symphony orchestra you don’t get many James Bonds. But you do get a few Dr. Kaufmann’s and Kristatos’s, the odd Boris Grushenko, and even a Max Kalba. For the girls, there was a Helga Brandt, a very nice Nataya Simonova and inevitably a Kara Milovy. There was one Dame Judi, and an Irma Bunt too.

I am please to say the conductor and host for the performance wasn’t a hack. It was Carl Davis, who is not only a conductor and Bond fan (naturally), but also a composer, having written the scores to The French Lieutenant’s Women, Champions, Scandal, The Rainbow and Topsy Turvy amongst many others. Setting the style for the show, he came out in a long gold jacket.

During the show, Davis would give brief, casual commentary about the Bond series and each piece of music the orchestra was about to play. I got the impression, that Davis was very knowledgeable but had to dumb down some of his comments just to keep the show moving – which makes sense, because not everybody is a Bond freak like me. But there is one item in the show that caused me a bit of concern. I am sure that Davis knows the truth, but chose to go with the simple overview, rather than clarify the truth. I am talking about the music for the tank chase in Goldeneye, but we will get to that later on. On with the show.

The show opener, naturally enough was The James Bond Theme. Sure it didn’t feature Vic Flick’s famous distorted guitar, but the orchestra nailed it. It sounded right. It sounded good.

Two emotions came over me, when the orchestra started to play From Russia With Love. The first was an almost uncontrollable urge to jump on stage and grab the microphone and belt out the words. But hey, I’m no Matt Monroe. Next as I listened, I almost burst into tears. The song was beautiful, and here I was in an auditorium, listening to some of my favourite pieces of music performed by a complete orchestra, with strings, brass, drums, harp – everything. Could life get any better?

At this point of the show we meet Mary Carewe, the vocalist for the performance. Carewe’s background is in musical theatre and cabaret, so she is more in the style of Shirley Bassey, than say Shirley Manson from Garbage. This has positives and negatives. When she sings the songs of Shirley Bassey, well unfortunately, she is gonna to be compared to Dame Shirley, and inevitably fall short. But when she sings the songs by other performers, if you close your eyes, you can almost imagine what they would be like if Bassey was singing them. Anyway, Mary came out in a shimmering white dress, with naturally a few sequins and belted out Goldfinger. It was good, but I felt it lacked that punch at the end. But those who have heard Dame Shirley tell the story of the original Goldfinger recording session may guess to the reason why?

Mary sauntered off stage, and the orchestra leapt into a great version of Dawn Raid On Fort Knox – the string section working overtime.

The version of Thunderball was bold and brassy – just like it should be.

Next we had the ring-in material. Mary was back on stage to perform a rendition of Burt Bacharach’s (and Dusty Springfield’s) The Look Of Love. In all honesty, this left me a bit cold.

But everything was back on track for the orchestral rendition of You Only Live Twice. This was truly a beautiful rendition, and the percussionists, subtly in the background, gave the song a nice Oriental feel.

The version of We Have All The time In The World was sublime. I don’t usually used words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘sublime’ in my reviews, but somehow saying “Dude, this rocks!” just seems so wrong. But for me We Have All The time In The World is one of greatest and most poignant of the Bond songs, and the M.S.O. captured that sense of melancholy. Excuse me, while I pull out my hanky and dry my eyes.

Mary had the right cheeky swagger to pull off Diamonds Are Forever and from there she strode straight into:

The theme from Live And Let Die is probably a very difficult song to do in one take, with it’s changes in pace. And I think the M.S.O. lurched a bit into the faster sections of the song. Once they were all there, they were together, it’s just some got there earlier than others. Mary appeared to be having a good time, strutting around, belting out Paul & Linda McCartney’s lyrics.

The orchestra seemed to like Marvin Hamlisch’s material. They really excelled on The Voyage To Atlantis and Nobody Does It Better. Mary was back on stage for the later and gave it her all.

After a brief interval, Davis was back on stage in a purple coat, and Mary had changed into a heavily sequined gunmetal coloured frock. For Your Eyes Only is not one of my favourite Bond songs, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the music – just to Mary’s dress. Sorry.

Ah, Moonraker it’s like a delicate flower, and amongst the bombastic, brassy Bond themes, it does tend to be over looked. I like the song, and Mary’s rendition was good, but this song is more of a showpiece for the orchestra.

The Man With The Golden Gun is probably the crudest and most brash of the Bond songs, and as such, it is also the most fun. Again Mary strutted around the stage, asking the question we all ask: Who will Scaramanga Bang next?

The Living Daylights was an orchestral highlight. The song is big, bold and brassy and the M.S.O. really hit their stride with this one – and how many more times do you think I can use the words ‘Bold’ and ‘Brassy’ in this review? It’s the alliteration I like. Bond. Big. Bold. Brassy. Bombastic.

Mary was back onstage in a new purple frock for a License To Kill which was fine.

Okay folks, this is where the controversy starts. The first musical selection for Goldeneye was A Pleasant Ride In St. Petersburg (Tank Chase). As I understand it, the producers of the bond movies weren’t too happy with Eric Serra’s score for this section of the film, and his refusal to use the Monty Normal James Bond Theme. The producers had Serra’s orchestrator, John Altman rescore the entire tank chase sequence. Davis in his pre-song commentary describes how Serra had to juggle to energy and power of the action scene with the cool suaveness of the Bond character. I think he should have mentioned Altman’s involvement. But hey, that’s real nitpicking. In the end though, musically, this is the weakest musical number in the show. After the show I even heard comments describing the number as ‘boring’.

This was followed by a routine version of Goldeneye.

So we move from the worst number, to in my opinion the best performance of the show. Earlier I mentioned how Mary Carewe could evoke Shirley Bassey. Well here she does. I have never been a huge fan of Garbage’s theme for The World Is Not Enough – I didn’t hate it – but didn’t really embrace it either. But here, with the M.S.O. evoking the spirit of John Barry’s Orchestra, and Mary Carewe evoking the spirit of Dame Shirley, musically I was taken back to a time when all Bond song’s were great (before Madonna). Seriously, the song came alive and seemed like a proper Bond song, rather than a pop song stuck at the front of a Bond movie.

Mary and the orchestra followed their show-stopper with a solid, but not particularly inspired cover of You Know My Name.

The M.S.O. reprised The James Bond Theme and we all clapped very loudly.

For an encore, we were treated to an earnest rendition of the criminally ignored, Surrender from the Tomorrow Never Dies soundtrack, originally performed by k.d. Lang. It was a nice way to end the show.

In in all it was a pretty good show. As it’s a symphony orchestra, I get the impression that depending on the venue, where you sit, can have a bit of a bearing on the sound that you hear. I thought the sound quality was very good, but on occasions the brass section did overwhelm things, but then again, maybe the musicians just got excited and played louder and louder. And who could blame them. Hey, I wanted to join in singing, remember! But if by reading this, you feel you have missed out on something, don’t despair. It looks like Carl Davis and Mary Carewe have combined with many symphony orchestras around the world to bring you this show. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s coming to your neck of the woods soon.

The linked soundtrack albums were put together by THXjay at The Crime Lounge and feature some tracks not on the original recordings.

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