St. George’s, Bristol
On March 1st 1973 I was a first-year sixth former, enjoying the minor privileges afforded to those of us who had endured and survived the rigours of O Level pursuit and had stayed on board for another 2 years looking for A Levels and probably, hopefully, University beyond that. Privileges that extended to being able, finally, to venture beyond the school grounds at lunch time without risking dire punishment.
My friends and I, being of a great-coated, patchouli-smelling persuasion, usually headed into town at lunchtimes, whether to pilfer books from the Polytechnic Bookshop or to drool over the LPs available from the recently opened Virgin Records store, staffed by long-hairs, that was festooned with bean bags and old leather armchairs in which we could lounge while listening to the latest LPs we couldn’t afford.
On days when we didn’t feel like schlepping all the way over the hill into town, we’d slum at the local shopping centre, maybe in W.H. Smith, who also sold some records, in Goodbodies Cafe where a milky coffee could be had and we might smoke the odd rollie if we dared, but most commonly we’d descend upon City Radio, a friendly retail outlet full of stereograms, radios and some hi-fi-ish separates that also had a good record section and kept a much better selection of progressive music than W.H. Smith.
We were on good terms with the two guys that ran the record department; they weren’t long-hairs – their company rules kept them from looking like anything that could be construed as worrying or threatening by their typical punter looking to buy a new ceramic stylus or a transistor radio on which they could listen to the Home Service in the kitchen. Nevertheless, the staff were good solid Afterword types, friendly music fans, half a century before such a thing had been conceived of, and would order in anything we asked them to get – they knew perfectly well that we’d usually be very unlikely to buy most of the stuff we asked them to get, but they were keen to hear things for themselves and took a gleeful delight in getting in a copy of the latest, say, Laura Nyro or Soft Machine LP so that we could get them to play if for us one lunchtime. They had two decks behind the tills and two little listening booths. Like little sentry boxes lined with perforated hardboard, each had stereo speakers at head height and each had enough room for about four over-excited teenagers to cram in at a pinch.
The release date for the new Floyd LP, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ had been known for some time beforehand, and amongst our number was a chap – already an accomplished drummer – with a massive love for all things Floyd. We all had one or two Pink Floyd LPs, so when he asked the City Radio guys to get in a copy of the new album on release day, there were several of us keen to pile into a booth at lunchtime on March 1st. I remember that lunch-hour with great affection, and the pleasure I’ve gained from the album we heard that day has endured now for half a century.
Small wonder then that, on March 1st 2023, my wife and I went along last night to hear the Bristol Ensemble perform their orchestral version of the album. Ahead of time I had no specific expectations or misgivings about what I was about to hear. There are enough great tunes across the LP’s two sides to mean that I thought I could reasonably expect to hear a performance I’d enjoy. I was not wrong. The performers warmed up with a couple of short pieces. The audience were suitably quiet as the orchestra’s piano player Paul Israel came to the stage first to play a spellbinding, beautifully judged delivery of Debussy’s ‘Claire De Lune’ – pin drop territory all the way through and huge applause after the last note from the Steinway had been allowed to fade perfectly and gracefully to silence. The whole orchestra then took their places and gave us a nuanced performance of ‘Full Moon’ by Ludovico Einaudi, to equal delight.
Without further ado, the musicians now fully loosened, conductor Roger Huckle raised his baton and held the orchestra poised as that thumping heartbeat sounded from the speakers and we heard the familiar voices from the start of the LP. The swell into the start of the music made goose-bumps stand out on my arms, and a big smile came to my face as I realised I had no need to worry – they had it sorted; this was going to be much better than just good.
You will all (well, most of you with any taste) know the sequence of the LP, so I won’t comment on each stage of the performance, but the two-sided nature of the original LP is emphasised by the fact that side 1 ends with The Great Gig In The Sky, wherein Clare Torry delivers one of the greatest vocal performances of any work in the rock catalogue. Up there with Merry Clayton’s part in Gimme Shelter, Torry’s wonderful, emotive improvisations in the Great Gig are a stand-out milestone in the unfolding of the album’s landscape, and so this performance was always going to have to deliver something special at that point.
My goodness. While continuing to direct the orchestra, Roger Huckle carefully and with one hand lifted a music stand to waist height, and onto the stage came Kathleen Williamson to give us the vocal gymnastics we might have been afraid to anticipate in case they didn’t stack up. Crumbs, we had nothing to worry about. She absolutely NAILED it, and side 1 ended with a rapturous round of applause. I closed my eyes during her entire performance, and as the song came to its end, a single tear descended my cheek. One of simple joy for having heard this glorious part sung live with such panache and such feeling. Marvellous; it was perfect.
Such a hard thing to follow, such a high spot, but follow it they did, with rousing enthusiasm, and clever sympathetic orchestration that saw the vocal and guitar parts of the second side given to the flute, the lead violin, oboe, clarinet, trumper and saxaphone as the tracks unfolded. Nothing sounded forced, nothing sounded clumsy, it all flowed. Nick Mason’s important drum moments were ably delivered by Graham Bradley on a kit that, while not quite Nick Mason’s gaudy assemblage with gong, gave him plemty of power when it was needed to replicate the significant breaks our ears were exepecting to hear at the critical points. They swung as a band can swing, rocked when they needed to and the instrumental mimicry of the vocals was outstandingly well handled throughout.
I don’t know if they intend to repeat this performance in the future, so you may never get the opportuntity to put my account to your own test, but if they do, go and listen. An hour of fascinating music – classical and popular – delivered by accomplished musicians is not a thing to be missed when the chance comes by, and the combination of talent, real chops and an obviously deep enjoyment of performance at a very high level is a thing of beauty. More power to their elbows, hands, lips and other bits; I really hope the Ensemble go on to do some more like this.
Wish you Were Here, guys?
The Bristol Ensemble:
Conductor – Roger Huckle
First Violin – Simon Kodurand, Hugh Blogg, Paul Barrett, Rebekah Allan
Second Violin – Marian Givens, Nina Sarnath, Jess Townsend
Viola – Carl Hill, Fran Higgs
Cello – Jane Fenton, Juliet McCarthy, Harriet Wiltshire
Double Bass – Jub Davis
Flute – Roger Armstrong
Oboe – Imogen Triner
Clarinet / Sax – Dave Pagett
French Horn – Mark Kane
Trumpet – Gavin Wells
Trombone – Garfield Austin
Percussion – Jeremy Little, Anna Newman
Drum Kit – Graham Bradley
Piano – Paul Israel
Guest vocal – Kathleen Williamson (Prof. of Jazz Voice at the Royal Academy of Music) ULTRA DIVA!
St. George’s almost always has Bristol’s best audience with which to share a performance, at most gigs, last night it was leavened by a good sprinkling of heads that used to sport longer hair, and happily also a good number of much younger folk, either maybe fans of orchestral music, or just youngsters with open minds and open ears to seek out new music and enjoy it. Or maybe youngsters with older siblings with inherited record collections and who might frequent dodgy dives like the Afterword.
It made me think..
I really hope that there are folk around to do stuff like this for forthcoming 50th, 75th and 100th anniversaries of many of the great LPs I’ve been privileged to have heard as they appeared and to have loved and enjoyed for decades afterwards – there’s a lot to say for it.