This weekend the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra presents music from 50 years of James Bond films. If you managed to totally screw up Valentine's Day, or just want a sexy, swinging night on the town, this is a program that will hit the target.
Guest conductor Carl Davis, anything but undercover in flashy attire, including a bedazzled Union Jack vest, led the RPO through more than two dozen musical numbers from the Bond catalogue. Starting with John Barry's theme from 1962's "Dr. No" and building to Adele's award-winning title song from 2012's "Skyfall," Davis gave the audience a crash course in Bond-ology, tracing the iconic spy in his film adventures. Davis imparted little bits of information about the actors who played the role, as well as the musicians and composers who have been involved in scoring the series over the decades.
As a property that has existed for 50 years, the Bond films present a unique cultural opportunity. This program serves as a fascinating kind of musical anthropology, as you can trace shifting artistic trends over the past 50 years. The 1960's film scores were dominated by that suave, masculine orchestral sound, while the 70's devolved into schmaltz (Marvin Hamlisch's "Nobody Does it Better" from "The Spy Who Loved Me") and the 80's ventured into slick pop-rock sounds (Duran Duran's "A View to a Kill"). Interestingly, the 21st century Bond films, the three starring Daniel Craig, have boomeranged back to those 60's roots musically as well, with the modern scores including some of the iconic elements of the earlier films while still sounding totally fresh and relevant to today.
The orchestra in generally performed well Friday night, and I noticed more than a couple of gleeful smiles on the faces of the musicians as they attacked some of those classic Bond motifs. The musicians sounded equally at home playing the more traditional nocturne from "Octopussy" as they did taking on an instrumental-only version of "Die Another Day" by Madonna. (Davis made an easy joke at Madge's less-than-renowned composing career, but it's actually a pretty nifty song once you take out the droning staccato lyrics.) I will admit to totally rocking out during the faster portions of "Live and Let Die," headbanging and all in the Eastman Theatre.
However, there were two critical instances where I felt that the orchestra didn't live up to the standards set by the original songs. In the opening number from "Dr. No," that absolutely essential thrumming guitar line didn't synch up with rest of the orchestra. The soloist had the rhythms down, but the timing of that particular passage is tricky; it's not quite on the beat, and he was slightly off, making it sound rushed instead of that key laidback cool. In a similar vein, the first song after intermission, "View to a Kill," lacked urgency from the brass section. That song includes gunfire-like stings from the brass section which, on Friday, sounded more like pop guns. Give us the punch, folks. This is James Bond! The man demands potency in every way.
Vocalist Mary Carewe joined Davis and the orchestra on roughly half the songs for the night. On the one hand, singing James Bond themes sounds like a pretty fun gig. On the other, the originals feature some amazing singers, and living up to Shirley Bassey, Tina Turner, Adele, and the like is no small order. Carewe does a fantastic job with all of the disparate styles, and was especially good on the theme to "License to Kill."
The RPO again presents "Classic Bond" Saturday, February 16, 8 p.m. at Eastman Theatre. For more information visit the website.