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Review: ‘Space Spectacular’ concert, Royal Albert Hall, 28th May 2016

Space Spectacular programme coverThe Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, plus the Royal Albert Hall organ with the stops out, can make the seats at the back of the circle vibrate – as the audience discovered during the first piece played at the sound-and-light extravaganza: Richard Strauss’s ‘Sunrise’ from Also Sprach Zarathustra. Memorably used for 2001: A Space Odyssey, the music was also used in the UK as the theme tune for TV coverage of the Apollo space launches, making the music an appropriately ‘fact and fiction’ way to start the afternoon’s programme.

It was immediately followed by John Williams’ Star Wars main theme, before self-confessed Trekkie conductor, Anthony Inglis, introduced us to Arthur Bliss’s march from the 1936 film Things to Come.

The things to come included Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Mars’ from The Planets suite; Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring main theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Stu Phillips’ theme for the original Battlestar Galactica. Given his long and triumphant association with the science-fiction genre, it was no surprise that John Williams’ music featured heavily. Not only was there much more from Star Wars – including pieces from Attack of the Clones and The Phantom Menace which proved that the music at least was worth revisiting – but we also heard from E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Throughout, the swirling stage smoke and sweeping lights provided a visual accompaniment that was almost as stirring as the music. Spotlights and flames blazed orange for Sunrise; searchlights swept the hall during Things to Come; rainbow wedges of laser lights twisted and danced to Johann Strauss II’s Blue Danube Waltz. For the Close Encounters theme, the circular lighting rig over the arena was turned into the mothership as it lit up and rose toward the ceiling. Beneath that domed ceiling, the acoustic mushrooms that hang there became moons, solar systems, flying saucers and planets as the lights played over them.

Nor were the audience mere spectators. The house lights were brought up before the Close Encounters piece began, and Inglis divided the audience into ‘aliens’ (top three tiers) and ‘earthlings’ (stalls and arena) and had us “Lah”-ing the famous five notes to each other. There was more participation for Barry Gray’s Thunderbirds theme (the final piece listed on the programme), with the choir, orchestra and audience providing the 5 – 4 – 3- 2 – 1 countdown as well as a hearty shout of “Thunderbirds are go!” As the theme blasted to a climax, flames and fireworks blazed overhead and around the gallery, bringing cheers and a standing ovation.

When Inglis returned to the stage in Jedi robes and wielding a light-sabre, it was clear that the entertainment wasn’t over. For an encore, he led the orchestra through the end-title theme to Star Wars (A New Hope) while Darth Vader and an escort of stormtroopers looked on from the organ loft. The second encore, and final piece, was heralded by Inglis pulling his white shirt open to reveal a Superman t-shirt beneath, and again the theme was accompanied by pyrotechnics and a dazzling display of lights and lasers.

It was a stirring, dramatic finale to a wonderful concert. One thing’s for sure – listening to these pieces on CD or MP3 will never be the same again!

Royal Albert Hall

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