wed 21/11/2018

The Music of Harry Potter, CBSO, Seal, Symphony Hall, Birmingham review - orchestral wizardry | reviews, news & interviews

The Music of Harry Potter, CBSO, Seal, Symphony Hall, Birmingham review - orchestral wizardry

The Music of Harry Potter, CBSO, Seal, Symphony Hall, Birmingham review - orchestral wizardry

Quidditch match of two halves has enough magic to charm the Muggles

Gryffindors: the City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraUpstream Photography

Imagine an orchestral concert made up exclusively of contemporary works by living composers: a programme in which every note was written within the last two decades. Imagine not only that this concert is sufficiently popular to fill a 2,000-seat hall with a noticeably youthful and diverse crowd, but that its format is already being replicated regularly by pretty much every major UK symphony orchestra. Now ask yourself how much critical attention such a concert would receive? You wouldn’t be able to pick up the Sunday review supplements for sheer weight of coverage, would you?

Well, apparently you would. This isn’t the place to ask why; nor to try and parse the snobbish sophistry that classifies film music by (say) Walton or Shostakovich as worthy of critical attention, while the work of Patrick Doyle or Alexandre Desplat is discounted. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is currently in the middle of a run of concerts featuring John Williams’s music from all eight Star Wars films, but the LSO, RSNO, RLPO and Halle (to name just a few) all routinely give programmes like this, often several times each season. And rightly: these are substantial scores, at the centre of contemporary culture. I’d hazard a guess that John Williams’s 2001 score for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is the single most performed orchestral work of the 21st century so far. It’s certainly not a trivial undertaking, either. The dizzying violin passages beneath Hedwig’s Theme have already become a standard audition test at some orchestras.

Confronted by playing (and orchestration) of this virtuosity, it’s bewildering to think that anyone could ever consider this repertoire a soft option for an orchestra

The CBSO surely plays that movement at least as frequently as it plays Don Juan, but it’s still a hair-raising way to open a concert. There was no trace of any uncertainty tonight: in fact, conductor Michael Seal (pictured below by Eric Richmond) went further than merely establishing clarity and precision, and swung the whole opening sequence along with a dance-like lilt. John Williams approached the scores for the first three films in the Harry Potter series with the same joyful eclecticism as JK Rowling employed when creating her magical world. The musical result has much of the same fresh yet half-familiar charm: a fantastic toyshop of styles, allusions and pastiches, coupled to some of William’s happiest thematic inspirations.

Williams’s music filled the entire first half of the concert, with Tommy Pearson – apparently a retired Hogwarts faculty member, complete with wizard’s hat, cloak and amiably donnish manner – serving as narrator, and cramming a remarkable amount of plot into each link. Judging from the reaction of the younger audience members (many of them dressed for the occasion in Hogwarts uniforms) he seemed to pitch it just right. Seal, meanwhile, relished the music’s colour – Messiaen-like eruptions of woodwind and harp in Fawkes the Phoenix, sepulchral blends of bass clarinet and trombones in The Philosopher’s Stone, and a sardonic reading of Aunt Marge’s Waltz that could have been part of a lost Prokofiev ballet – and the CBSO responded with playing of considerable finesse.

Michael Seal - picture by Eric RichmondThat included passages of unaccompanied first violin writing that resembled nothing so much as a Paganini caprice played in unison by the full section, and a high tensile, whip-smart dash through the astonishing The Knight Bus – a headlong, jazz-powered collision between Varèse and Scott Bradley. Confronted by playing (and orchestration) of this virtuosity, it’s bewildering to think that anyone could ever consider this repertoire a soft option for an orchestra. Seal gave solo bows to the violins; to flautist Marie Christine-Zupancic for a fast-tongued moto perpetuo solo that made the Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo sound like Grade 3 stuff; and to celeste player Ben Dawson, whose part in Williams’s Potter scores approaches concerto proportions.

But the main musical problem with a Harry Potter programme – at least one, like this, that follows the narrative order of the eight films – is that John Williams left the series after the third movie, 2004’s The Prisoner of Azkaban. Beyond that point there’s relatively little ongoing thematic development of the sort that makes the Star Wars series so musically satisfying. The final five films were entrusted successively to Patrick Doyle, Nicholas Hooper and Alexandre Desplat, and it’s hard to avoid the feeling that as colour and joy left the storyline, so it drained from their scores too.

There are still moments of melodic inspiration, and Seal and the CBSO strings phrased Doyle’s Harry in Winter as lovingly as if it was Vaughan Williams, while the young women of the CBSO Youth Chorus proved startlingly macho in the mock-Irish gruntings of The Quidditch World Cup. (Earlier, they’d sung Williams’s setting of Shakespeare’s Double, Double, Toil and Trouble with lip-smackingly acidic sweetness). Seal gave a suitably bumptious swagger to Hooper’s theme for Professor Umbridge, and didn’t spare either his percussion or his horns in the muscular final battle sequence of Desplat’s Deathly Hallows.

Overall, though, that the evening worked so well owed much to the pacing of the different extracts, Pearson’s nicely pitched links, and the consistently red-blooded playing that Seal drew from the CBSO. And it certainly didn’t do any harm to return for Williams for the finale: Harry’s Wondrous World, the Straussian orchestral rhapsody that serves as the credits sequence for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The assembled witches and wizards cheered, and no question – if you’re already a member of Dumbledore’s Army, you’ll be predisposed to enjoy an evening like this. With half a billion copies of the books in circulation, that’s not a constituency that any orchestra should sneeze at. Meanwhile, hearing music of this freshness and imagination (in Williams and Doyle’s cases, anyway) played with such life-affirming flair was more than enough to bewitch this particular Muggle.

@RichardBratby

John Williams approached the scores for the first three films in the 'Harry Potter' series with the same joyful eclecticism as JK Rowling employed when creating her magical world

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters