1999 Symfo, 26 February 1999
The Royal Dutch Airforce Orchestra,

with Gary Chandler, Tony Sherman and Nurlaila Karim.
Concertgebouw, Haarlem, The Netherlands

By Bart Jan van der Vorst


The orchestra of the Royal Dutch Airforce is a classical wind-band, with instruments like clarinets, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, baritones and horns, completed with a rhythm section with a guitar, bass guitar, drums, percussion and keyboards. This 52-piece band already has quite a good reputation for its theatre shows often combining a light- and dance show with music which one wouldn't expect to be played by a military orchestra: light classical music, pop and jazz.

This year they've started a very special project: Symfo 1999, which is a flashback to the Seventies when classical influences got integrated in pop and rock music by bands like Queen, Yes, Camel, Jethro Tull etc. Besides the 52-piece band the show stars three vocalists: Jadis singer Gary Chandler, Miss Saigon star Nurlaila Karim and earlier collaborate Tony Sherman and three dancers/singers from the dance-act Touchdown.
The show promised to be something very special with old classics performed (almost acoustically) by a big orchestra, enriched with a massive lightshow and many other show elements.

When I arrived at the Haarlem Concertgebouw I actually though I had made a wrong decision coming there, as the foyer was filled with old crippled senior citizens (probably with a theatre season ticket) and shiny medalled war pensioners (probably visiting their old orchestra). I was relieved when the orchestra started with Rick Wakeman's Journey, and proved that they were there wrong, and after about 5 minutes in the show two ladies in their mid-eighties with front-row tickets left the theatre with disapproving, sour looks on their faces. This was definitely the concert with the highest ever average-age of the audience that I've ever seen.

The stage was a bit cramped because of the huge amount of space the orchestra needed. The dancers had a tiny walkway in front of the orchestra, as well as one walkway between the musicians. I must say however that they coped extremely well. At the right hand side of the stage there was a small scaffold on which cardboard signs with the songtitles were placed. At the beginning of each song, one of the dancers Melise de Winter would come onstage to replace the signs, while pulling funny faces at the audience.

The Overture of a part of Journey, which flew into Lloyd Webber's musical Jesus Christ Superstar. During J.C. Superstar the six vocalists appeared one by one onstage, each singing part of the title-track.
After the Overture one of the dancers Peter Stoelhorst remained onstage to recite a poem, which was not in the program book (so I don't know where it came from)
The poem was a perfect intro for the next song, the Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin, sung by Tony Sherman. This song was completely destroyed by the poor quality of the sound. This was due to the amazing fact that the acoustics of the venue were too good!! The trumpets, baritones, horns and drums were not amplified, yet they almost drowned out all the other (amplified) instruments and vocals.

After Nights in White Satin Gary Chandler entered the stage to sing the Procol Harum hit A Whiter Shade of Pale. This song was played in a very strange arrangement (by Robert-Jan Stips, quite famous in Dutch rock-land) which had the prominent Hammond solos of the song moved all the way to the back, resulting in a much slower and unfortunately also more boring version. I definitely prefer the original.

The next song was much better: Supertramp's Dreamer, sung by all vocalists. An excellent arrangement (strangely enough by the very same Stips) with perfect show-elements. The next song in the program showed Bouree, from Jethro Tull, however they played that disco/funk version of Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, which was such a worldwide hit after the film 2001: A Space Oddysee. Personally I *hate* that raped version of this classical piece, so I hadn't mind a bit of Tull instead there.

The next song was much better again though. A bit of Dutch pride with Earth and Fire's Storm and Thunder. Again, great show elements, as Nurlaila Karim, wearing a huge silver dress, got lifted in the air while singing. For the first time the disappointing lights showed some nice effects, with white beams portraying the lighting.
With Nurlaila still up there dancers Allison Spalding and Peter Stoelhorst appeared from under her dress to play a nice romantic ballet, while the orchestra played a medley of one of the most successful Dutch bands ever: Focus.



The rain-theme returned with a raincoated Gary Chandler singing ELO's Standing in the rain, which was very originally cleared up halfway with a happy Mr Blue Sky. During Mr Blue Sky all 5 vocalists sat down in front of the stage, all singing different parts. Very fun to watch and excellently arranged. This song was really one of the highlights of the show.

Naturally highlights are followed by disappointments, and indeed this show was no exception - The next song was from the one singer I probably I loathe most: Stevie Wonder. Worst of all was that Tony Sherman's voice sounded almost like Stevie's.

The next song - or three songs actually - were much better: A medley of The Who's rock-opera Tommy. A song you wouldn't expect to be played by a big orchestra and a perfect closer for the first set.
While Nurlaila portrayed The Acid Queen (see photo) the four others sat like statues on chairs. Every time Nurlaila touched one of them they'd come to life for a second. Again, nice acting and good choreography, considering they were still on a 1-metre wide stage.

When we returned from the intermission a tape had started playing a very familiar bass-loop: the finale of Tubular Bells, by Mike Oldfield. Rather than going back to our old position near the stage, we decided to sit on the balcony, , as the sound was much, much better up there.
After about 5 minutes, when everybody was back in the auditorium a lonely flute player appeared aside the stage and started playing the first melody of Tubular Bells. One by one the musicians came back onstage. Each time a row was filled on the stage they started playing along to the flutes. So first the flutes and clarinets were added, next the saxophones, horns and fagots, then the trumpets and baritones and last the percussion. Each time a row was added the song got louder and louder, perfectly. They played the big orchestra version of the song, which can be found on the album Exposed. It was magical; a whole lot better than last time I saw Mr Oldfield himself perform. The only disappointment was that the Tubular Bells, played by one of the percussionists, couldn't be heard anymore, as all other instruments played too loud.

The second set was a bit more paced, and at the same time a bit more straightforward. The second song played was a very short, a capella version of Mark & Clark's Worn Down Piano, immediately followed by Alan Parsons Old and Wise, which was terribly sung by Tony Sherman, but saved by a splendid saxophone solo.

The next highlight was a very original combination of Camel's Friendship and the Queen hit Bicycle race. Allison and Melise played a dancer (dancing to Friendship) and a cyclist (knocking Allison over with her bike). An excellent piece of acting and a great teamwork of all musicians singing the choruses.

Another highlight was the second Queen song: Who wants to live forever. Played as it should be, by a large orchestra, and sung as a duet between Tony and Nurlaila. Especially the latter sent me shivers down my spine. Although the guitarist didn't sound quite like Brian May it was still a tremendous performance, which kept the audience dead silent during the instrumental finale.

The set closed with Damocles, Rik Elings' disco version of Beethoven's 9th (which was a big it in Holland in the early eighties) followed by Jimmy Webb's McArthur Park: another great performance of Gary. (see photo)

A massive standing ovation had the orchestra stay for an encore, the mother of all mini-rock operas: Bohemian Rhapsody. Although it was the third Queen song in the set, there couldn't have been a better way to finish this concert. Sung by all five, with everybody an equal piece, this was yet another highlight of the evening. The whole orchestra played superb and even the guitarplayer coped well with Brian May's famous licks.  


I must say that I was pleasantly surprised with the whole concert. It was much than I had expected it to be. I was also surprised about how well a singer Gary Chandler actually was, the music of Jadis never really bothered me at all, but singing he surely can. Despite the poor soundquality the performance as a whole was excellent too! Although the first set contained (in my opinion) a much better and braver song choice than the second, which was more of an all-time faves set. For a broader audience so to speak. Unfortunately the audience wasn't much to write home about; the theatre was less than half-full!

 

I think the show is still playing Belgium and Holland for the next few months, so check the list of dates to see if they play anywhere near you. If you're open minded and not afraid to hear the occasional classical arrangements of songs, accompanied by some dancing and even ballet, then you won't be disappointed.


Band:

Gary Chandler - Vocals, Guitar
Nurlaila Karim - Vocals
Tony Sherman - Vocals
Melise de Winter - Vocals, Backing Vocals, Dance
Allison Spalding - Vocals, Backing Vocals, Dance
Peter Stoelhorst - Vocals, Backing Vocals, Dance

The Royal Dutch Airforce Orchestra
Major Jos Pommer - Conductor
Matthew Dickens - Choreography

Setlist:

Overture:
Journey (Rick Wakeman)
Jesus Christ Superstar (Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice)

Poem (??)
Nights in White Satin (Moody Blues)
Whiter Shade of Pale (Procol Harum)
Dreamer (Supertramp)
Zarathustra (Strauss)
Storm and Thunder (Earth and Fire)
Focus Medley:
Tommy
Silvia
House of the King

Standing in the rain/Mr Blue sky (Electric Light Orchestra)
Village Ghetto Land (Stevie Wonder)
The Who's Tommy:
Overture Tommy
Acid Queen
Listening to you

Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield)
Worn Down Piano (Mark and Clark Band)
Old and Wise (Alan Parsons Project)
Changing States (Emerson, Lake and Palmer)
Friendship (Camel) / Bicycle Race (Queen)
Burn down the mission (Elton John)
House for Sale (Lucifer)
Who Wants to Live Forever (Queen)
Damocles (Rik Elings)
Mc. Arthur Park (Jimmy Web)

Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) 

 

 (All photos Bart Jan van der Vorst)

 

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