craig armstrong

Craig Armstrong's 'Film Works' - Live in Ghent
by michael beek / Music From the movies

Mozart, Puccini and Verdi were given an evening off at Ghent’s opulent Vlaamse Opera House last night and the stage was set for the ‘Flanders Opera Symphony Orchestra’ and ‘Flanders Opera Chorus’ who took on the task of breathing life into the ‘Film Works’ of Craig Armstrong. Under the ever-trusted baton of conductor Dirk Brosse, the artists sang, bowed, banged and blew their way through a full programme that included some of the Scot’s most popular music for the screen.

The evening was presented once again by festival regular Tommy Pearson, this time joined by Belgian radio personality Fien Sabbe. Both were warm hosts, offering insights into the music as well as two short interview segments with Armstrong by Pearson. The composer, always affable, seemed less than comfortable speaking in front of the packed crowd, but talked candidly with the presenter about his past, present and future career. It really is the great thing about this festival and these kind of events that you can sit and hear great film music in the presence of the composer… a rare treat indeed. And so to the music…

The concert took in highlights of Armstrong’s film music from the last ten years or so, though there certainly was an emphasis on his most recent score World Trade Center (including 'Choral WTC', 'Cello Theme', 'Piano Theme' and 'Ethereal'); not a bad thing given that it’s a beautiful and moving work, but perhaps the indulgence in this one score meant other equally worthy additions weren’t included in the programme, for example The Magdalene Sisters. Saying that, what was played covered most bases on the composer’s resume and included music from impressive scores such as The Quiet American, Ray, The Clearing, The Bone Collector and Best Laid Plans. Standout pieces included the high-octane choral performances of ‘The Hanging’ from Plunkett and Macleane and the always dazzling ‘O Verona’ from Baz Lurhman‘s Romeo + Juliet. Armstrong’s other collaboration with Lurhman, Moulin Rouge! was also well represented; first up were two songs used in the film, ‘One Day I’ll Fly Away’ and ‘Nature Boy’… The pieces showcased just how original Armstrong’s arrangements for these classic songs are, really drenching them with his sound. The vocals were performed by David McAlmot, a British vocalist of Nigerian and Guyanese descent; his vocals were powerful, however his close proximity to the microphone meant he was a little overpowering with the orchestra and the first song was really a bit of a reach for his range, though the second was far more successful. The final piece from the film was ‘Ascension’, which was an absolute treat - the cue is very emotionally charged (as is a lot of Armstrong’s music) and the accompanying film footage extended the experience and the emotion in the auditorium was palpable. I think this is actually one the best uses of film footage I’ve witnessed at a film music concert; very often the images are random and don’t really have any correlation to the cue being performed (as was the case at Saturday’s awards show), but last night the clips were chosen really very well and heightened the power of the music. Clips and cues from Orphans and The Quiet American were particularly effective together.

Another highlight, and perhaps a guilty pleasure for me, were the selections from Love Actually… the ‘Glasgow Love Theme’ and ‘Restaurant Scene’ (which closed the show, perhaps a little unwisely) are particular favourites of mine and they didn’t disappoint. The film’s director, Richard Curtis, sent a message to the concert expressing his fondness for Craig and the happy memories he had of working with the man he described as being ‘a big man, with a big heart’.

As the concert went on I became a little intrigued as to why Armstrong wasn’t playing the piano, having read that he would (and being told by the man himself earlier in the day!). Anja Van Dyck performed piano on all the programme pieces and did so very well, though perhaps without the panache that the composer himself would have. My fears of not seeing/hearing Craig at the piano were quelled however with an addition to the programme. Three pieces, all solos, were performed with absolute flair and they included the ‘Ethereal Piano Coda’ from World Trade Center, a lovely piece called ‘Hymn 3' (originally from Craig’s 'Piano Works' album) and finally the song ‘Let It Be Love’, which was featured on Craig’s second solo disc ('As If To Nothing') and performed here by David McAlmot. Again this was a treat for those present, to see the composer perform his own work and without music I might add.

So music of passion, high drama and tragic romance, the sort of vibes Craig Armstrong creates so well, bounced off of the elegant mouldings and spectacular frescoes in one of Ghent’s most impressive buildings. A truly grand cadence to my week at the 33rd Flanders Film Festival. Bravo Craig and well done to the Orchestra and Chorus for holding it together in their premiere festival appearance. See you next year!

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