“An afternoon at the Movies”, I replied to the umpteenth question of where we were headed on a dreary Saturday afternoon. It was clear that my ruse would not last, subject to the scrutiny of my four long-sceptical children aged between five and eleven, even before we turned away from the cinema. There was already the suspicion – rightly, as it turns out, that this had something to do with an orchestral concert.
Except this was a Family Concert, and it was just that. The Chichester Symphony Orchestra performed a varied programme of modern and classic movie soundtracks from the world of Hollywood, jazz and musical theatre. Aimed for families with young children, it was hugely entertaining and informative for both kids and adults alike. A blend of musical education, theatre and humour meant the hour went by in a flash of a light sabre. More on that later.
From the moment he walked up to the podium, Simon Wilkins, the CSO’s young but endearingly charismatic conductor, immediately put us at our ease. Dismantling any notion of stuffiness, he introduced us to the various sections of the orchestra, all helpfully dressed in colour co-ordination, with a handy reference guide to each instrument printed in our programme.
John Williams’ original Star Wars Suite from A New Hope was a sure-footed way to start the proceedings, and the orchestra certainly did not disappoint. The brass section, at full symphonic strength, were magnificent. The iconic top C for the trumpets in the main theme was struck with precision and confidence every time, with the low brass doing justice to Williams’ masterful, but challenging, counterpoint. It is a testament to the skill of the conductor here that the overall balance was good, despite the orchestra being a little light in violins against the full force of the brass, double woodwind and a panoply of percussionists. Whilst Simon jested that there’s only one real Solo in Star Wars, special mention must be made for Jill Hooker’s hauntingly beautiful flute in Princess Leia’s Theme.
And from that galaxy far, far away we were invited to spend A Night on the Bare Mountain in Modest Mussorgsky’s terrifying tone poem and, judging by the faces of my children, this musical “ghost-train” had its desired effect. Staying on the dark side with Williams’ Imperial March, Simon pulled his masterstroke. After schooling the audience in the art of a basic four-pattern, he handed a (suitably sized) baton to a small boy, picked at random, to conduct his symphony orchestra. What could have been a gimmick was heart-meltingly adorable, and indeed a perfect metaphor for the CSO’s mission to make classical music accessible to all.
The excursion to ‘30s America with Gershwin in Hollywood was less successful, not that it wasn’t impeccably played, only that it is in the company of far more recognisable works for younger ears. An orchestral medley of Abba tracks brought us back to familiar territory (I swear I could hear them singing along behind me) and we were subsequently treated to Leroy Anderson’s light-hearted Jazz Pizzicato – a wonderful example of the versatility of the strings, resplendent as they were in their red sectional colour.
This all worked so well simply because of the easy-going charm of the conductor who, like a young Leonard Bernstein with his Young People’s Concerts, effortlessly educates and entertains a broad range of listeners, whilst never taking himself too seriously. We all felt involved. Come the return to the Throne Room and End Credits there was a genuine feeling of delight in the room.
So, plenty to discover and enjoy in this wonderful programme, and one can only hope that it will become a regular feature of the Chichester Symphony Orchestra in the future.
“This was better than the cinema”, remarked my five-year-old as we were leaving. A New Hope indeed…