Saturday, 22 February 2014

Orchestrated litany of High-lights

The Doctor Who Symphonic Spectacular was a show of many lives and times, and a life-time.

New Zealand Mezzo Soprano Anna Pierard led the Orpheus choir in some beautiful choral pieces while stalwart Ben Foster (centre) conducts the NZSO in Wellington.  Who'd ever have thought it?

Really, I had intended never to refer to the 'fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who (TM)' on this blog again – except for this one last time…
Friday saw the opening of the New Zealand Festival and, I presume with its survival having been threatened by diminishing audience numbers in recent times, this year the organisers gave us Doctor Who.

This once ‘cult’ show has become a demographic-shattering juggernaut in the last nine years, and the colossal recognition factor has been reflected in Britain and Australia by sell-out live concerts of composer Murray Gold’s music, performed annually for almost as long as the show has been back. Beginning as a ‘one-off’ charity concert in 2006, the formula of live orchestra, a star host, huge screens showing relevant clips and ‘monsters’ stalking the aisles has grown to headline the Proms and tour Australia. Having seen recordings of most of the British performances, the highlight is always the cut-aways to the audience and their reactions to the spectacle, especially among the very young fans. 

A Cyberman inspires...ummm... 'terror' on the Wellington waterfront.
A lovely, chatty interview with Murray Gold last October earned me an unexpected but very welcome couple of tickets to the Symphonic Spectacular from the publicists, and a very special event in the vague proximity of my birthday to look forward to. This version of the ‘Symphonic Spectacular had of course been specially formulated for performances in Britain during last year’s ‘fiftieth year’ celebrations, so an unavoidable overlap into 2014 of Golden Anniversary cheer was to be expected.

However, I had no idea just how much, because this concert, unlike all the others before it, was not just about recent years but went to great lengths to embrace music from the entire history of the programme.
So, on top of all the unforgettable highlights the night already offered, was the wonderfully bizarre sight of the New Zealand Symphony orchestra belting out the bellicose 1960s Cyberman music; then accompanying an extended scene from The Sea Devils (thirteen-year-old me: I only wish you could have seen that!) and performing one of my all-time favourites, the spiralling refrain leading to Tom Baker’s regeneration from Logopolis. By now I was shocked to already realise that I wasn’t going to get through the night dry-eyed, but I know I wasn’t the only one. 

My giant ear almost eclipses the TARDIS.
Before further gushing, I will balance it by coming back to one of my oldest bug bears – the reserve of Kiwi audiences. The Logopolis clip mentioned above ends with the very first glimpse of a ridiculously young Peter Davison, and given that the man himself was more-than-ably hosting the evening surely some applause would have been appropriate? Like-wise a terrific video sequence towards the end of the concert, set to the choral piece which made David Tennant’s farewell seem even more protracted: Vale Decem, was utterly vindicated by accompanying a beautifully-edited sequence of all the Doctors in their final moments. At this point I desperately wished that the long-lived overseas tradition of fans frantically trying to out-do each other with cheers and applause as their favourite Doctor first appears on screen could only have been adopted here.

But I am , of course, being ridiculously churlish. Our capacity Wellington audience spanned at least four generations, the very youngest possibly never having been up so late in their lives before, and was liberally sprinkled with bow-ties and Fez’s. (Here’s the thing though: those in costume were almost exclusively young women. Certainly wasn’t like that in my time – to quote Paul Simon: “These are the days of miracles and wonders.”) They sat patiently in the late summer heat through the 15 minute technical delay in starting, warmly welcomed Davison’s entertaining asides, goggled at and stroked passing monsters and wonderfully, gave a mighty standing ovation at the close, so what more could anyone ask for?

With only the pulsing logo to keep us company, and a timely reassurance from Peter Davison,
we patiently wait out a technical diffficulty before the concert begins.
Another early sequence showcased the new programme’s first four companions. Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble got a delighted round of applause but the reaction to Billie Piper as Murray Gold’s masterpiece Rose’s theme opened the set was utterly lovely. A sigh of concentrated affection seemed to gust through the auditorium – in less than ten years the ‘new’ series already has its nostalgia buffs. The farewell scene between the Doctor and Rose featured heavily in these clips, a poignant recollection for many - myself included as I remember my Mother astonished to find herself weeping over this sequence back in 2006.

One of the biggest surprises was a performance of music from an episode I would otherwise have been happy to forget ever existed - The Rings of Akhaten. A grim feat of endurance to watch on television last year, somehow it became many people’s highlight of the evening. The broiling sentient sun filled the massive screen as the audience were bathed in suitably fiery lighting, while child soprano Mia Vinaccia, accompanied by tenor Oliver Sewell, broke our hearts. As the spectacular conclusion to the first half of the concert, it left many visibly moved as the lights came up - perhaps this unloved episode should always have been an opera…

To my inexperienced ear the NZSO performed the music to this silly TV show with the same respect and commitment that they would give to the works of classical composers, and despite what I assumed to be a smaller ensemble than at overseas performances, the scores sounded utterly authentic and powerful enough to drown out on-screen dialogue in one of the show’s very few technical mis-steps.

Peter Davison turned the thankless role of halting the spectacle and announcing what was next into a superbly entertaining stand-up routine. Referencing our cricketing achievements, Peter Jackson and New Zealand Customs (“they frisk you for fruit!”) he was a delight and I’d have been very happy to hear more from this experienced pro, and less clowning from Ben Foster. As Davison concluded: “I’ve just got one note for you: don’t give up conducting.”

Perhaps the main draw for some turned out to be the least memorable for me, but no less welcome for that – the monster mash. The TSB Bank arena is not an ideal venue for alien creatures to menace and many appearances were restricted to on or around the stage. The latest iterations of the Cybermen and Daleks earned huge applause, and deserved it for ‘running the gauntlet’ to navigate the aisles (the blue Dalek with a little difficulty it seems). The limited space caused Davison to refer to ‘an alien traffic jam’, but the thrill of seeing these marvelous creations ‘in person’ was still very palpable. The imposing and surprisingly agile Ice Warrior was my personal highlight. 

A cavalcade of creatures brave a hot lunchtime stroll. 
I was strolling too, but completely obliviously past Te Papa in the background!
Could anything have made this show more satisfying? Well, one of the promised highlights was ‘a specially recorded message from the Doctor”. Although we are technically 'between Doctors' at the moment, for many Matt Smith is still the incumbent and I didn’t doubt his not-unwelcome chin would be filling the screen for this sequence.
Instead we got Uncle Tom! Now in his eighties , Tom Baker’s famous, still-piercing, twinkling blue eyes conveyed enormous affection and sincerity when he reigned in his trademark eccentricity and thanked us all for our support over the years. 

Uncle Tom!
No - thank you sir, and thank you New Zealand Festival for what was literally the show of a life-time, both for the programme and the audience.

My hastily scribbled review can be found here:

Like some more?
Here are two excellent impressions from two excellent matinee session imps:

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