The Hallé went to war earlier this month but thankfully both audience and orchestra survived to tell the tale.
Battle lines were drawn at the Bridgewater Hall and the title for the evening’s entertainment was The Battle of Britain. This was part of the Hallé Pops, a season of concerts in which the Hallé seeks to entertain with ‘some of the most thrilling and popular works in the classical world…alongside great film music, Broadway and West End Classics’.
And entertain they did with this collection of stirring pieces all drawn from war films. British for the most part, they included such rousing old favourites such as Elmer Bernstein’s theme from The Great Escape as well as some truly sophisticated works such as Maurice Jarre’s score from Lawrence of Arabia.
On a night where both brass and percussion performed over and above the call of duty, an individual performance of particular note was a virtuoso solo performance by Lyn Fletcher, leader of the first violins, who made her instrument sing with eloquent grief as she played the violin solo in the main theme to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Interestingly, when Spielberg first asked John Williams to write the score for his movie the composer told him “You need a better composer than I am for this film”, to which the director replied “I know, but they’re all dead!” In the end I think there would be few who would dispute that Williams did a particularly fine job of it.
Throughout the evening the orchestra repeatedly returned to the music composed for the 1969 classic Battle of Britain. This proved an inspired choice given that the film had not one but two remarkable scores written for it. The first is a well-defined and thoughtful piece of work from Sir William Walton, conducted by Malcolm Arnold. However, when the studio United Artists heard the score they simply didn’t take to it, a view that was compounded when the music department informed them there wasn’t enough music to fill an accompanying soundtrack album, which by then was big business in its own right. And so, without telling Walton, the studio dropped his score and secretly approached the prolific and talented Ron Goodwin to give them a second option.
When Laurence Olivier, one of the many big names starring in the film, heard about Walton’s dismissal he threatened to pull his name from the credits and, to mollify him, one of Walton’s pieces was retained and the piece in question – The Battle in the Air – is quite extraordinary.
The Battle in the Air is used towards the end of the film during a sequence that depicts a prolonged and intense series of confused and bloody dog fights. It’s a menacing piece of music, redolent with threat and evocative of both the shredding of nerves and the deep exhaustion that prolonged operational exposure inevitably induces. The scene is one of the most disturbing in the film, and portrays the battle at its height in September of 1940 when the attrition rate among the few was at its worst.
The film is itself an excellent piece of work and, from a historical perspective, it’s one of the most accurate war films ever made; essentially if you want to know what happened in the Battle of Britain, then watch The Battle of Britain.
The shoddy treatment of Walton aside, the replacement score by Goodwin was undoubtedly a triumph and on the night we were treated several rousing pieces from both scores – and were encouraged by conductor Stephen Bell to reflect on what we’d heard and decide upon which we liked best. For what it’s worth here’s my two pennies worth. Although I enjoyed Walton’s score, I preferred Goodwin’s version and thought it was the right choice for the movie. In its purest form, music written to accompany films has almost no time in which to establish itself. It must, if it is to be a success, have immediate impact and unlike symphonic works there can be no gentle transitions of mood. To effectively induce emotion and evoke atmosphere each piece must be capable of standing alone; in this Goodwin is an absolute master and his score for Battle of Britain is a masterpiece.
Talking of masters of their milieu, special mention must be made of the man with the conductor’s baton, Stephen Bell, whose wonderfully idiosyncratic style was a joy to behold throughout the evening. Bell hopped and leapt around the podium and wielded his baton like a field marshal, always keeping his troops enthused and onside. This was his first time conducting as the associate conductor of the Hallé’ Pops Series and in my humble opinion he can certainly count it as a success, as was the evening itself judging by the full house and appreciative audience.
Home for tea Hallé, and medals all round.
Review by Alfred Searls
What: The Hallé Pops: The Battle of Britain
Where: The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
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