BWW Review: SYMPHONIC QUEEN, Royal Albert Hall
Just over 49 years ago, a little-known student band named Queen gave their very first public performance under that name at Imperial College Union, settling on their final line-up a few months later and bracing themselves for world domination. Following on from the phenomenal success of the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra returned for another round of Symphonic Queen, celebrating some of the band's biggest hits with a classical twist.
Of all the rock groups in musical history, it's hard to think of many whose back catalogue is better suited to the full orchestra treatment; with grandiose lyrics and a truly flamboyant style, Queen's songs translate naturally and remain great sources of entertainment and emotion.
The location of the concert also could not be more apt, as Queen's roots can all be traced through Kensington and the surrounding area - Brian May was an astrophysics student at nearby Imperial College, Freddie Mercury and Roger Taylor ran a clothes stall together at Kensington Market, John Deacon studied electronics at Chelsea College, and Mercury's mansion (Garden Lodge) can also be found in the local area. The 'Royal' prefix to the venue and orchestra is also rather fitting for a band as regally named as Queen.
Arrangements of all the 22 songs in the concert were made by Mike Townend and conductor Matthew Freeman, the running order comprising a decent mix of numbers from across the band's career. Most of the focus is on singles from the 70s and 80s, which is understandable in a standalone concert that hopes to appeal to casual as well as hardcore fans, though I have a feeling that some deep cuts such as "The March of the Black Queen", "In the Lap of the Gods... Revisited", and "White Queen (As It Began)" would work brilliantly in this format.
The concert opened with the barnstorming "We Will Rock You", quickly looking to the audience for involvement and getting everyone clapping their hands in unison. This was shortly followed by "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", Mercury's rockabilly tribute to Elvis which worked surprisingly well as a classical piece. One of the big highlights of the night, for me, was A Day at the Races opener "Tie Your Mother Down" - its heavy guitar translated excellently into woodwind and string, and the gong and harmonium intro was even lovingly recreated.
Similarly, "Fat Bottomed Girls" was a surprise flash of brilliance, its earthy riff played with gusto by the brass section and the percussionists also getting their chance to shine. This also worked for 1985 single "One Vision", as it meant the opportunity for an extended drum solo - though no "fried chicken!" in sight. Radio 2 DJ Ken Bruce was on hand to compère the evening, and even stepped in to provide the smatterings of dialogue when the time came for "Flash" - Brian Blessed, eat your heart out!
There were two big emotional peaks in the concert, the first of which came in the first half with a completely instrumental version of "Love of My Life" - supposedly written by Mercury for one-time girlfriend Mary Austin - and then the second was towards the end of the evening. "No-One but You (Only the Good Die Young)" is a poignant piece anyway, but was made all the more so with the addition of an emotive string section, and "Barcelona" served as a fitting tribute to opera singer Montserrat Caballé, just over a year after her death.
On an occasion such as this, there was also time for some drama - "The Show Must Go On" and "We Are The Champions" providing a stirring climax to a concert that flew by in the blink of an eye.
Though all four members are credited, most of the numbers were Mercury or May compositions; perhaps a Roger Taylor "These Are the Days of Our Lives", or even "I'm In Love With My Car", might redress the balance slightly. Capital Voices were there to accompany the orchestra, however it would probably work better if they were slightly larger in number - as they mostly focused on backing vocals, these were sometimes a little half-hearted and got lost in the music.
All that being said, it was a fantastic reimagining of the Queen back catalogue that captured the imagination of the packed house at the Royal Albert Hall - a night that can definitely be classed as "A Kind of Magic".