A glorious exploration
20 January 2011
Ever wondered if an orchestra can conjure up the sound of a jellyfish? Or suggest a plague of avaricious locusts? Or convincingly ape a vengeful wasp? I must confess I hadn’t a clue - until casting about for a topic for this week’s column, I found the answer to these intriguing questions after browsing in a local DVD take-out facility.
The secrets behind these, and a wealth of other flights of fantasy, are found in a DVD entitled Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to The Orchestra. Move over Britten’s decorous Young Person’s Guide, and Prokofiev’s quaintly familiar Peter and the Wolf. We now have the sonic possibilities of an orchestra dissected and explored as never before, as classically trained British comedian Baily joins forces with the BBC Concert Orchestra and musical maestro Anne Dudley, one of the UK’s leading composers and arrangers.
Filmed live in 2009 at the Royal Albert Hall in London (the magnificently grandiose stamping ground of perennial Proms concert-goers), the show encompasses Bailey’s uniquely irreverent takes on the sounds, characteristics and instruments of the orchestra. These are enlivened by a dazzling cavalcade of banter and mime that veers from savagely funny satire to observations of pinprick precision (“Sometimes in life you make a wrong decision – it’s only a semitone out”).
The opening bars of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra offer a predictable if effective departure point, and the terrain soon veers into an eclectic maze of topics. These include music from 70’s cop shows, sci-fi films, horror movies and news themes, also some of Bailey’s songs re-imagined for an orchestra, fused with Ms Dudley’s own specially written new works.
Along the way, courtesy of Mr Bailey’s wonderfully off-the-wall perceptions, we get to marvel at the trombone’s affinity with Cockney Music, discover bassoon-players’ secret obsessions, and marvel at what orchestras can play backwards. We also learn that a trombone can double as a snorkel.
One of the show’s stand-outs of aching musical hilarity is The Swan from Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, as rendered by Bailey and percussionists of the BBC Concert Orchestra, performing in tandem as a virtuoso ensemble of Alpine Bells.
On the evidence of this one-of-a kind disc, Billy Bailey’s contribution to the world of classical (and other) musical commentary is right up there with that of legends such as Anna Russell and Victor Borge. One can only agree with Steven Fry, as quoted on the dust jacket: it’s all “wonderfully enjoyable, like driving a Rolls Royce off-road.”
Meanwhile, window shopping down the endlessly suggestive malls in cyberspace, another enticing DVD release of musical commentary has caught my eye: an Omnibus of Leonard Bernstein’s fabled 1950s television lectures, comprising Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1954), The World of Jazz (1955), The Art of Conducting (1955), American Musical Comedy (1956), Introduction to Modern Music (1957), The Music of JS Bach (1957), and What Makes Opera Grand? (1958).
More of this anon, if I succumb to temptation...
[Republished courtesy of The Mercury newspaper]