Review: The Music from Bond

Bond musicRoyal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Richard Balcombe

Blenheim Palace, June 25 2016

A selection of music from the greatest British film series…

The Great Court at Blenheim Palace formed the backdrop for this highly enjoyable performance of the music of 007, which appropriately started with the James Bond theme and concluded with Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall”, the theme from Spectre – whose “Italian” base for the super-secret organisation was filmed here. The heavens had been periodically opening in the hours leading up to the concert, but pretty much from the moment the main part of the orchestra took to the stage (most bringing their instrument cases with them just in case!), it dried up, and an evening sunshine bathed the audience.

The programme began with Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme – apparently as arranged by John Barry, but with an upbeat feel that was much closer to the Moore era’s updating of it (in fact, George Martin’s reworking for Live and Let Die seemed to be at its heart). Bond “girl” Fiona Fullerton was the hostess for the evening, and imparted the information for the audience that they needed about the songs, along with a few personal anecdotes along the way – her reaction to Barbara Broccoli’s little favour (screen-testing against the new James Bonds in 1986) was nicely done.

IMG_1159Thunderball came next, with Simon Bowman making the first of several appearances. He seemed a little nervous in this – it was taken at quite a lick – but he settled down and started to put across the necessary swagger as the evening progressed. His fellow soloist Mary Carewe followed him on stage to perform Goldfinger, and – as with all of her solos – owned the piece, aided by an orchestration in a key a little lower than the original that gave the lower pitched instruments some strong moments. She then went straight into You Only Live Twice, which benefitted in the arrangement from some syncopated rhythms and an instrumental verse. Bowman’s performance of From Russia, With Love had a real Matt Monroe feel to it, with some lovely string writing. Carewe then gave us a medley of Shirley Bassey’s other two Bond themes; you can’t call them hits, given that the first is Moonraker. That rightly didn’t get a full rendition, segueing neatly into Diamonds are Forever, which did!

We got the second orchestra-only piece with the theme to the 1967 Casino Royale (which does have lyrics!); after a slightly shaky start, this was a fun rendition of one of the overlooked additions to the repertoire. This led to “Nobody Does It Better”, performed by Carewe which felt slightly too pop-oriented in the arrangement, and went straight into The Man with the Golden Gun – not the best Bond theme, but performed with real gusto by Carewe. Bowman was on form for the performance of “We Have All the Time in the World”, from OHMSS; given how well the start of Man with the Golden Gun was played by the RPCO, I’d love to hear them do the theme from OHMSS.

Talking of orchestral playing, I suspect I’m one of the few people there who was delighted by the inclusion of the next item: a suite of John Barry’s score from A View to a Kill, which included Stacy’s theme, the airship fanfare as it entered Silicon Valley, and then the fight on the Golden Gate bridge. The first half concluded with a very well controlled performance of Licence to Kill.

IMG_0118After the interval (during which the RPCO’s performance of Independence Day Live at the Albert Hall was the only future concert plugged), Simon Bowman gave us A View to a Kill – I had actually wondered, given that we’d missed Live and Let Die, we’d had the orchestral suite from View, and then jumped to Licence to Kill, whether there had been a conscious decision not to include the songs sung by bands, rather than soloists. The arrangement of this made it work well as a solo. We jumped back then to For Your Eyes Only, with Carewe channelling her inner Sheena Easton, and an orchestral arrangement that at times felt as if someone had accidentally written a “play octave higher” indication on the music.

One of the less well remembered songs, “All Time High” from Octopussy, came next, and kudos to the arranger (whose name I couldn’t see even though the video camera operator panned onto various players’ music from time to time) for a strong countermelody that did make the piece more resonant. We leapfrogged films then for Bowman to give a strong performance of The Living Daylights – and here was the only place that I was surprised by the arrangement which changed a fifth drop to a fourth, after the line “headlights fade away” (and it’s not one of the changes a-ha made for their own album version after they fell out with Barry). Nitpicking? Sure, but whereas the reharmonisations in places worked, this simply jarred. The rest of the arrangement was great, feeling like Barry’s own orchestral version rather than the a-ha original.

Carewe returned for GoldenEye, which was extremely good, and then one of the nice surprises of the evening – Tomorrow Never Dies was represented by “Surrender”, David Arnold’s song that was eventually used over the closing credits performed by k d lang, rather than the Sheryl Crow title theme. That was done as a duet, and was highly effective. Madonna’s title track for Die Another Day was also not attempted – instead David Arnold’s instrumental “Welcome to Cuba” got a highly energetic performance – and we then jumped back to The World is Not Enough, which Carewe had great fun with.

IMG_1160We were then promised the first two Daniel Craig films. Fullerton had mentioned earlier in the evening that we would come to Casino Royale (2006) in due course – but there was no sign of Chris Cornell’s piece, or indeed anything else from that critical movie. Instead we went straight to a duet of “Another Way to Die” from Quantum of Solace (which is one of those themes that has grown on me over the years), and then, very oddly, back to Live and Let Die. Bowman falsetto-ed parts of this (useful preparation for what was to come), and the RPCO went to town with the accompaniment, which ended with the proper cadence.

The evening officially closed with Carewe giving a slightly slow rendition of Adele’s Skyfall (one of the rare occasions where the words weren’t always clear), but really ended with Bowman giving a bravura performance of “Writing’s on the Wall” – after all, we could hardly be at Blenheim without it. It proved what I’ve felt about that song: the piece itself works well, it’s the Sam Smith performance that’s annoying. As the most recent addition to the canon, there haven’t been that many arrangements of it, save the orchestral version accompanying the train journey in the movie itself, and there was some very good use of pizzicato in the strings under the singer.

With an encore of a final, shortened, Goldfinger to send the audience back to the muddy fields that surrounded their cars, the two and a half hour concert was over. The second half had more energy than the first, but in part that’s down to the nature of the songs themselves. Richard Balcombe’s control of the orchestra was absolute, and it felt like there was a strong rapport between soloists and conductor.

Verdict: An excellent trip through the Bond canon with some nice surprises along the way. 9/10

Paul Simpson

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