AFTER another sell-out last year, Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra’s A Night at the Movies concert returns to St David’s Hall on Friday 6 December – but this time it’s an extra special occasion as it’s the 25TH ANNIVERSARY of this amazing annual concert!
Neil Collins speaks with CPO Conductor, Michael Bell MBE about what makes this night so enduringly popular every year…
Incredibly, it’s been a quarter of a century since you first held a “one-off” concert of film music in 1994. What pieces are you playing?
Blimey, yes, 25 years of A Night at the Movies! I was very young when we started these concerts…it says here…! This year we’re taking a look back over many highlights. There has to be music from Star Wars of course – especially with the new Rise of Skywalker coming out in December 2019 – but also classic Hollywood such as Casablanca, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Ben-Hur. Plus, there’s more recent favourites such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Chicago and Harry Potter. There are British favourites too like 633 Squadron and Miss Marple. Also for the first time, there’s music from one of the most popular films of recent years, The Greatest Showman!
What are your memories of the very first A Night at the Movies concert in 1994?
It was such a gamble performing an evening of film music at a time that such evenings were quite rare. But it was a gamble that paid handsomely. It is music the orchestra loves playing, and I love conducting, which is why film music features in our season at St David’s Hall every year.
The concert has really gone from strength to strength and in December 2017, a staggering 1,882 people packed St David’s Hall to the rafters, which was the highest attendance for any show at the venue for 13 years! That’s an amazing feat when you consider the prestige of some of the orchestras and musical acts that have performed here during that time!
I am both amazed and really pleased that A Night at the Movies is proving so popular. We are very lucky that so many want to join us for the concert.
It must’ve been an incredible buzz to perform with pretty much every seat filled including behind the stage. Did you ever envisage that you would pack the Hall like that when you first formed the orchestra in 1982?
All performers want to perform to a full house; the reaction and support of the audience is something that really lifts all the players and it raises everyone’s game. I tell the orchestra that it doesn’t matter if it’s a full house or just a few people in the audience, we must give our all for them – and the orchestra really does.
You have a very warm and engaging personality onstage and I think this particularly shines through in the Movies concerts where you share anecdotes, facts and figures with the audience. As a bit of a film buff yourself, it must be enjoyable collating all the trivia each year? Take us through your research process…
You’re far too kind Neil! I like to talk to the audience. I think it helps to draw the audience into the performance. In 1994 there wasn’t the internet and so I did all my research the old way by reading books, mainly film guides and biographies, and in particular The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats – long since out of print.
The main thing is to give a flavour about what the audience is about to hear – who’s in the film, what it’s about, something about the music itself, anecdotes about the production and other assorted trivia!
Apparently you wrote to a well-known BBC presenter back in the 90s asking him to host the concert, but when he declined you decided to have a go yourself. Was that first time experience like?
I did. I wrote to the late Barry Norman, who sent me a very nice letter declining. So I thought I’d give it a go myself and I’ve been doing it ever since. I was very nervous that first time…and it doesn’t get any easier!
It looks like good fun performing such incredible music from the movies. Talk us through this year’s repertoire…
For this concert celebrating 25 years of A Night at the Movies, the programme is made up of many favourites of the orchestra and audience and me. We’re beginning with the piece that opened the first concert in 1994 Gershwin in Hollywood featuring music from great Hollywood musicals of the 1930s; many of which starred the one and only Fred Astaire.
You’ve really hit upon a winning formula in recent years performing music from Star Wars and fans turn out in their droves each year. Are you a Star Wars fan yourself and what makes the music so iconic?
The first Star Wars film I saw was The Empire Strikes Back. I hadn’t seen the first of the Star Wars films released (A New Hope), so I didn’t really have a clue what was going on, and who was who! But what struck me straight away was the brilliant music, written in a symphonic style, very much in the tradition of the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who wrote the music for many of the swashbuckling films of the 1930s starring Errol Flynn. The essence of John Williams’ music for Star Wars originates from there.
Away from Star Wars, what would be your favourite films, movie composers and scores?
We’ve been fortunate to perform music by many great Hollywood composers from Korngold, Franz Waxman, Dmitri Tiomkin and Bernard Herrman to Henry Mancini, John Barry, James Horner, Hans Zimmer and many more. I particularly enjoy the epic films most notably Ben-Hur that has one of the very greatest of all film scores, written by Miklós Rózsa. There’s also music from one of my very favourite films, from the golden age of Hollywood, Casablanca, that starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
CPO will once again be performing the Movies concert at Blackwood Miners’ Institute. Is it useful to always have that ‘dry run’ the week before each year?
We love performing in Blackwood. In fact we performed our first ever Night at the Movies there in 1994 and have returned every year since then. The audience there is always warm and welcoming but we perform at our very best, and do not think of it as a warm-up for St David’s Hall. We owe our audience there to be on top form.
Like the Family Prom, this concert perhaps has a more accessible repertoire particularly for youngsters. Do you think concerts like these are vital in attracting people to the joy of classical music from an early age?
Yes I do. Film music, more often than not, conjures images of the film and provokes an emotional response. It would be good to think that there will be many in the audience hearing a live orchestra for the first time, playing music they know and enjoy, and it’s up to us to ensure it’s a happy experience. Hopefully people will then come back to hear the orchestra again. We also think it’s important to have tickets at affordable prices for families.
Not only is A Night at the Movies unmissable each year for film and classical fans, but it also strikes me that it works so well as an essential part of the festive programme at St David’s Hall. Would you agree that it’s perfect for a great value night out for the whole family just before Christmas?
When we started A Night at the Movies in 1994, and for several years afterwards, we performed it in February, but moving it to a pre-Christmas slot seemed an obvious thing to do and it has certainly paid off.
Lastly, what makes patrons come back for A Night at the Movies year upon year?
Hopefully our wonderful audience who have enjoyed A Night at the Movies one year, will come again the following year. We want everyone to enjoy the whole experience of live orchestral music, and to send everyone away smiling at the end of the concert with all those great tunes going round their heads!
To book your seats, please visit www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk or call the Box Office on 029 2087 8444.