Conductor: Richard Sidwell
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Friday Night Classics seems something of a misnomer when the classics in question come from the back catalogue of Queen, the rock band successful throughout the 1970s and 1980s and beyond, despite the untimely death of iconic frontman Freddie Mercury in 1991. But yes, on stage is the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), albeit seated in a different formation and with the regular players augmented by electric guitarists, keyboards and drum kit and, of course, singers. In this case, the singers have all performed in We Will Rock You, the jukebox musical based on Queen’s music; indeed, most of the musical numbers we hear were also part of that show.
One might wonder whether the two traditions – electric pop and the symphony orchestra – can co-exist and it is a reasonable question. Pop music is typically less complex than traditional orchestral fare. Nevertheless, conductor and arranger Richard Sidwell has arranged the songs effectively to showcase both aspects and it works: Sidwell’s background includes recording and playing with artists such as Blur, Robbie Williams, Duran Duran and The Pet Shop Boys, so his credentials in the music of the period are peerless. Maybe it is just that Queen’s musical scope and ambition have always veered toward the big, loud and theatrical and so it is not such a stretch for their music to be played in this way. And, as singer Rachael Wooding notes in her introduction to Play the Game, while that song may have been the first to use synthesisers, the power of the CBSO means they aren’t needed tonight. And the players of the CBSO demonstrate their sense of fun in ’70s and ’80s inspired fancy dress, even including, it appears, Freddie Mercury himself playing the trombone.
The first half starts steadily with maybe lesser known songs from Queen’s repertoire while the second half really gets the audience going. The moods vary from the pensive, even poignant, for example, These Are The Days Of Our Lives and Who Wants to Live Forever, to the out-and-out rocking of Tie Your Mother Down and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. The singers take turns to take the lead and all are fine showmen, but for too much of the time the vocals come second to the power of the music so the lyrics are somewhat lost. Nevertheless, Peter Eldridge – looking the archetypal rock singer – can belt out the vocals to, for example, Seven Seas of Rhye and Tie Your Mother Down while Oliver Tompsett’s purer voice soars over the orchestra in, for example, I Want To Break Free and Killer Queen. Completing the quartet of singers are Jenna Lee James and Rachael Wooding. James shows great depth to her voice in Radio GaGa which really rocks while maintaining the precision playing of the CBSO. Wooding’s voice also suits the gentler Love Of My Life – in this orchestration, as complete a piece of music as one is likely to hear anywhere.
As the tempo steps up after the interval many audience members are clapping and singing along, dancing in their seats or waving phone torches. There is a genuine sense of fun that radiates from the stage – the singers seem to be having a whale of a time, dancing themselves between their vocals – and this is absorbed and transmitted back by the appreciative audience. This power of the music and its performance builds throughout leading to the pinnacle that is Bohemian Rhapsody.
An unlikely pairing, maybe, but one that, on this occasion, at least, proves to be A Kind of Magic and has many in the audience crying Don’t Stop Me Now at the close.
Reviewed on 18 November 2016 | Image: Contributed