‘One night only’ collaborations are a curse, and one that festival organisers are particularly prone to inflicting on a loyal ticket-buying public.
Those involving symphony orchestras are worst of all - I’ve seen video of Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and that kind of thing is hard to recover from.
Bunging a hundred orchestral musicians behind a singer songwriter to make it sound all lush and lovely really doesn’t cut it. Yet it keeps happening - with Elbow, with Katie Melua, with Bob bleeding Dylan (old rockers like Aerosmith and Kiss are common offenders, and Sir Mix-A-Lot does better than most).
Marling is brilliant - an amazing player, a wonderful songwriter and strong, distinctive singer. She survived rather than thrived here, her powerful music untainted by the soupy, bland arrangements the orchestra piped over and under them. But the orchestral music existed in parallel to Marling’s largely unchanged songs. There was no interaction, no real collaboration, no intertwining of the musical strands. In which case you have to ask: what’s the point?
A series of Celtic Connections performers did a couple of songs each in the first half and none benefitted particularly from the big, soft, pillowy harmonic bed the orchestra provided. None fed off it, none changed their songs dramatically to accommodate it, none placed themselves in harmonic opposition to it to create some discordant tension.
I’m sure all those warm bodies sawing away on stage made some gig-goers felt like they were getting something special. But they weren’t, it was just a luxurious gimmick, a play act of specialness to mark the festival’s opening.
It wasn’t the orchestra’s fault, it was the fault of the conductor, festival organisers and arranger who allowed such rich musical resources to be put to such thin use.
This was apparent the second Declan O’Rourke took to the stage to close the first half. The music instantly sang - there was more richness, variety, tension and rhythmic complexity in the opening bars of one song than in the whole first half put together. You suddenly understood what a big orchestra can do for a singer, and though O’Rourke is no Sinatra I was reminded of the richness of something like the Count Basie Orchestra under Sinatra and how it provided contrast and counterpoint as well as support.
Well it turned out that O’Rourke had just finished a whole album with an orchestra. These were presumably arrangements he brought with him, the product of real, months-long collaboration and painstaking, detailed work. It shone.
Now I don’t know how long the arranger, who was lauded with multiple mentions and an invitation on stage, was given to do the work. Arranging more than a dozen songs for a full symphony orchestra is a lot of work and maybe the festival didn’t buy enough of her time for her to do it justice. Shame on them if that was the case.
More important is the question: why do bands and promoters keep doing this? It must be ego-massaging for performers: making like an old crooner in front of a huge orchestra is a sign you’re big time I suppose. And Celtic Connections probably wouldn’t have got away with a plain Laura Marling gig for the festival’s first show. It had to be an ‘opening night’. Festival staff probably found themselves using the word ‘gala’ at some point.
So you can understand how all involved can drift gig-wards without ever really asking themselves sternly enough: how are we going to make this work musically?
And you end up with a slightly cheesily compered show with lots of talk about the ‘fantastic’ orchestra, the ‘amazing’ arrangements, with a concert that talked about itself more than was seemly and an air of collective self-congratulation.
Maybe the excellent Karine Polwart did better, I was sadly late in and missed her. It is telling, though, that though Marling survived unscathed the highlight of the night was Rachel Sermanni, who wasn’t accompanied by the orchestra at all.