Thursday 19 November 2015

Star Trek The Ultimate Voyage Concert Tour

Hailing Frequencies Closed

Star Trek The Ultimate Voyage Concert Tour
The Royal Albert Hall
1st November 2015

You know, I’ve been to loads of great movie music concerts over the years. Starting off when I saw John Williams at the Barbican in 1981 or 1982... where he conducted Holst’s The Planet Suite followed by music from Superman The Movie, Close Encounters, his first two Star Wars scores, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and, in an astonishing encore, the premiere UK performance of a piece of music from his up and coming film E.T. I was 13 or 14 years old and it was a great experience. I saw a few more concerts by him over the years too.

Over the remaining decades since that first time, I also saw some great concerts by the likes of Jerry Goldsmith (more times than I can remember), Michael Nyman (even more than Goldsmith), Philip Glass (again, too many times to recall), Elmer Bernstein (three times), Ennio Morricone (three or four times), John Barry (a couple of times) and Howard Shore... to name drop a few. I’ve also seen some of the new style concerts over recent years, where clips are simultaneously projected as silent montages, such as a brilliant concert by Danny Elfman for his music for the Tim Burton movies and even some full-on films where the score is played live to the projected movie, giving the audience an insight into the way the orchestra works against the images and sound on screen... such as the two recent Star Trek films at the Royal Albert Hall and Goldsmith’s Planet Of The Apes at the Royal Festival Hall. There have been a  lot of these kinds of ‘movie with music’ screenings going on in London over the last couple of years, presumably because the organisers of these things have discovered that these are really popular... and not surprising either. In this way you can see film music put into practice against the images they were composed for (a key point which will come up again in a minute) and really see the art and craft of the scoring of these movies coming alive before your eyes and ears. They can be great fun...

And, yeah... they’ve mostly been pretty good, overall, to tell the truth. You always get the odd bad one and there’s no such thing as ‘the perfect concert’ but, the number of live performances I’ve seen that I loved far exceed the number of concerts I’ve had a bad time at. I rarely review concerts because... well, they are what they are and the review is rarely going to be more than an account of the one off performance in question... which can be entertaining but less useful in terms of judging whether you should go take a look at it. That moment is usually long gone.

I am, however, making an exception in this case because the Star Trek concert I saw a few weeks ago at the Royal Albert Hall was quite badly presented and I had some real problems with it on a couple of counts. It’s also touring in 2016 and I think people should know what they’re getting into here.

Part of my problem stems from having such a brilliant orchestra, the London Philharmonic, a conductor, Justin Freer, who knew how to get the best out of them, two legendary guest conductors - composers Ron Jones and Jay Chattaway - and a play list of 29 mostly great pieces of music from 50 years of Star Trek that made the mouth water when I saw the programme... and then having a simultaneous presentation which completely, and in almost every way possible, detracted from the music for most of the time.

It started off okay with the first half of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s famous theme, despite what it said in the printed programme, unfortunately cutting off before they got to the Klingon battle music half way through the piece. Which was a shame but I wasn’t going to complain too much... until, after a couple of pieces of music were played from other things when the second half of the track was performed as a separate suite. What the f***? That wasn’t the worst thing, however. As soon as the second piece in the concert started, an audio/visual presentation began which would last through the whole two hours of the show... and it wasn’t kind to the performance.

For starters, they had a narrator, I don’t know who (could have been Michael Dorn, I guess), starting a continual, pretentious monologue about man’s endeavours, how the characters are all noble and tough, how we all collectively strive to be better people etc, playing right over the music. This was accompanied by constantly shifting montages from all the various Star Trek films and TV series, mixed together, including full sound effects and intrusive dialogue... all played over the top of the orchestra’s hard work. The music was rarely even from the same era or show from which the clips being used were chosen from... it was ludicrous. It was like a mix and match scene and I really didn’t want to watch...say... excerpts from the exciting ‘drop’ action sequence of the 2009 Star Trek movie while I was trying to listen to James Horner’s End Titles from Star Trek II - The Wrath Of Khan? I also knew I didn’t want to be watching excerpts of Khan - the Montalban and Cumberbatch incarnations - whilst trying to listen past the dialogue and sound effects to the End Credits Suite from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country! 

I mean, asides from the overblown ‘connecting’ dialogue voice over, the clip montages were mostly quite good... but how could you possibly concentrate on the music? I was realising half of the pieces I was waiting for had already passed me by because I was too busy trying to shift my concentration away from the visual density and noise of the presentation. This was appalling. I remember Goldsmith saying in or before at least a couple of concerts, sometimes in a pre-concert talk, that he absolutely hated it when a piece of music he’d composed to be shown with a specific sequence of images was used to accompany a different set of images. He then went on to illustrate how Ridley Scott (Goldsmith’s scores for Alien and Legend were both treated quite badly in their final presentations too) or somebody like that had temp tracked a cut of a movie using parts of his old scores and he’d been very unhappy about it. He knew what the music was supposed to be conveying with the images and putting the music he’d composed with other images was just wrong. Imagine how he would have felt, were he alive, if he’d have seen this so-called concert, where almost all of the pieces of music on offer were put in the background to serve totally different emotional hits than what they had been composed for. I reckon, after hearing stories about the great man, that he would have been less than calm with this decision and I wonder if his departed spirit would come back and haunt the people responsible for this event at some point... Star Trek Experience - The Wrath Of Goldsmith.

Now, the concert wasn’t all bad... there were a few instances where they let the actual visuals, dialogue and effects playing on a clip with the actual score composed for that sequence play out as it did in the original, with live accompaniment... such as the stand out moment of the concert where the fight scene from the Star Trek episode Amok Time was screened, supported by Gerald Fried’s iconic action music written for that scene. Sad to say, though, that these moments were exceptionally few and far between and, for me, this one piece was the only bit of the concert that really worked. At least the music fit what was gong on and I could hear the way the score was working properly, without any distraction other than visuals which already worked in harmony with it.

As far as the rest of the concert was concerned... well... the lady I was seeing the show with was clock watching and, although she’d been really looking forward to the music, suggested we could leave during the interval if I wanted... I said we should see it through and at least wait and see what the encore was (there wasn’t one) but, she was obviously not having a great time with the concert either and, when we talked afterwards, it seemed she was having the exact same problems of a distracting and needless presentation that I was having. The organisers should have seriously ditched the screen content and noise on this one, I think.

Now, when I think back on it, it becomes clear to me that this was maybe more of a propaganda/promotional piece for Star Trek rather than a celebration of it. It kinda pains me to say this and there were certainly no “buy our DVDs and Blu Rays - in shops now” moments in the well put together presentations... it was mostly done quite tastefully. However, the lack of respect for the way the busy sound and footage detracted from actually being able to concentrate or, in actual fact, consciously register the music above all the hullabaloo, seems to me to say a lot about what the target audience was for this... certainly Star Trek fans above music fans, it seemed to me (and to the person who came with me). It seemed specifically fired up to the aim of getting everyone rushing home and watching, consuming and buying more Star Trek and I’m sure that’s the thing that most people, whether consciously or unconsciously, would have taken away from this event. I can’t imagine anybody saying... ooh, Rosenman’s opening titles from Star Trek IV was really well done because... well, could they even hear them?

The concert finished with a big disappointment for me too. The Alexander Courage theme, which I’d seen played amazingly by the same orchestra earlier in the year, was the expanded arrangement which is on the Johnny Williams and the Boston Pops album Out Of This World. It’s a version of it I’ve always hated for its deviation in spirit from the original and I can only assume they wanted to round off the concert with this extended version because they wanted to make their final montage of clips last just that little bit longer. Oh well... at least I couldn’t concentrate on that piece so much, over the visual and audio noise... which is not the kind of consolation I want to be taking away from any film music concert.

I find it increasingly strange in a growing market of soundtrack listeners worldwide, that the people who organise events like this do not seem to be listening to what the people who listen to this particular niche music like and dislike. I know people every year, on various message boards which anyone can access, complain in no uncertain terms when a record producer decides to put dialogue from a film over a musical cue. I could understand it to a certain extent, back in the days before people had access to some kind of home video system, where an argument could be made that the record release was pretty much the only souvenir of the film’s audio track available on the market... but we moved on from that back in the 1980s. People who buy scores, in the majority, don’t want their music sullied with any dialogue or sound effects... and people (including myself, I guess) can get quite vocal about it. Why then, would the organisers risk alienating their music loving concert goers by screwing up the most important part of it and tracking in dialogue, sound effects and busy visuals to pull away from that experience so intrusively?

Now, to be fair, it might be that this concert tour wasn’t aimed at a soundtrack listening audience at all. I’m sure lots of ‘trekkies’ or ‘trekkers’, or whatever the latest fashionable term for fans of this high quality science fiction franchise is, were probably there and they probably had a really good time with it. However, I was there for the music and the insult of having such a wonderful play list performed by truly brilliant people and then not being allowed to listen to it properly was purely a lesson in frustration, as far as I’m concerned. And I know the person I was with thought so too. It’s actually put us both off going to this kind of event before approaching the ticket buying process with extreme caution in future.

The programme for the event, costing an exorbitant £10 on top of the ticket, was also quite telling. Midst some writing about the orchestra and guest conductors, there was also an article on The Science of Star Trek. Really? What’s that got to do with the music? There’s a Western concert happening in March and my friend said to me that she’d quite have liked to go to that one but it looks like they’ll be playing clip montages again over the music... so count her out. Sentiments I really can’t blame her for after this fiasco and I think I may not be going either, I suspect.

The reason I’ve written this review is not specifically to have a whine, although that helps take out frustration somewhat... it’s because of this - the show is apparently touring in 2016 and, frankly, I’m hoping the organisers may have a long think about how they’re selling this to the concert going public. Maybe pitching the advertising a little to make it clearer that the music will be obscured or maybe even tweaking the presentation a little to dial it back from being such an overwhelming experience might raise this ‘experience’ to a much greater level musically. I’m sure the various orchestras involved would prefer the public to be able to hear them properly, right? Anyway... I’ve said my piece and done my bit. I’m honestly not sure if this is the worst concert I’ve been to in my time but it’s down there among the worst and, at no time, were any of the wonderful conductors or orchestra members to blame... so it’s a bit of a shame. Moving on now... and hopefully purchasing my tickets to live events with a bit more caution in future. Listen long and prosper.

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