Orchestral manoeuvres in the park I feel like an outsider standing in the crowded church hall. In many ways, I am – the lone journalist awkwardly trying to find a place to sit amongst 60-odd musicians who are about to begin a rehearsal for the biggest night of their year.
But that isn’t why I feel removed. I feel this way because I am interrupting something so unified, so cohesive and huge, that everything in the room is merely secondary to the sound. Just listening to the orchestra warm-up is special; hearing each musician practise little snippets of songs or tune their instruments while people continue to flood into the hall, lending their own unique musical voice to proceedings, is extraordinary.
For some reason, younger generations seem to have a perception that orchestras play ‘softly’. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Band and orchestra stand facing each other, both bracing themselves for a sonic assault. With the recognisable intro of “This Love”, the Durban City Orchestra begin their manipulation of one of Gangs of Ballet’s most beloved songs before the band join in to complete the massive wall of sound. The orchestra are in full-on rock band mode now, as if they have been playing these songs all their lives. Frontman Brad Klynsmith looks over to his brother behind the drums and gives him a nod and a smile. This is the vision of Gangs of Ballet more fully realised than ever before. The band have always had a knack for putting epic crescendos at the heart of their compositions and the accompaniment from the orchestra only intensifies this.
The standard guitar, drums and bass setup in modern rock music has given the impression that any other instrumentation simply does not have a place, but it’s clear now that this is how it should be. “We’ve often wondered what certain parts would sound like with strings, for example, but we’ve never had the ability to actually perform them that way until now,” says keyboardist, Jono Rich. “I’m blown away by how this is all coming together.” Ensuring that the concert is seen as a fully collaborative effort, two cover songs and a few fully orchestral pieces are included in the setlist. One of the covers, “Iris” (originally performed by the Goo Goo Dolls), is the perfect choice for such an occasion, especially considering the substantial number of couples expected at the Valentine’s Day concert in the Durban Botanical Gardens. “There are plenty of bands who incorporate orchestral backing into their music; “Iris” is a perfect example, we’re really looking forward to seeing the reaction from the audience when we play it,” explains bassist Hardus de Beer, better known simply as H. The other cover song is a rendition of Radiohead’s “High and Dry”, with the Klynsmith brothers taking it in turns to give their best Thom Yorke impressions. Both do a fantastic job and the subtle backing from Durban City Orchestra really intensifies the song’s emotional impact. It’s one of the more subdued moments in the performance, but it’s absolutely brilliant.
The orchestra’s solo pieces are also spellbinding. Opening with the first section of Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra” (most well-known for its use in the 1968 classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey), everyone is well and truly on form, delivering a near flawless rendition. The other pieces are much lengthier and showcase the orchestra’s skills in all departments. Appealing to both young and old alike, a medley of themes from 007 has all of the classic Bond tunes played out to perfection. Along with a performance of the “Intermezzo” for Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana”, this will hopefully be a real eye-opener to many in the audience about the skill it takes to have 50 people working in unison to create music like this. Undoubtedly the highlight of the evening, though, is the performance of “Imagine”. At this point, Gangs of Ballet and the Durban City Orchestra are playing together flawlessly, the track’s anthemic nature taken to a whole new level of epic. The orchestra fill out the verses, giving them a much fuller sound, then taking the chorus to towering new heights. The ending of the song in its new form is the most climactic moment of the band’s discography to date, rivalling even the great “Hello Sweet World”. When it’s over, there is a brief moment of silence before Brad exclaims, “That sounded fantastic!” and begins a round of applause for his fellow musicians. Everyone is grinning from ear to ear, knowing just how special that was.
After such a moving performance, Conductor Russell Scott makes the decision then and there to close out the show with “Imagine”, save for the inevitable encore of Gangs of Ballet’s biggest hit.
I leave Monday night’s practice feeling as though I have witnessed the whole concert already. Four days later I realise just how wrong I was, with the Valentine’s show exceeding all expectations.
Everyone is brilliant – the band, the orchestra, the participation from the audience – and with a sold out crowd of five and a half thousand people there to witness it, the show is one that will be remembered for a long time to come.
“Tonight was a special occasion,” says Russell Scott. “I think everyone involved did an excellent job and hopefully this isn’t the last time we put together something like this.” As the musicians take their final bows, the impending rain finally falls. Even Mother Nature, it seems, was enjoying the show.
– Grayson Hale