3 Oct 2017

Review: Auckland Symphony Orchestra’s Synthony

From Upbeat, 1:30 pm on 3 October 2017

Electronic Dance Music was given a symphonic twist by Auckland Symphony Orchestra in front of a heaving Auckland Town Hall on Saturday Night.

Reviewer Tony Stamp was in the glow-stick waving crowd. Did it live up to the hype? Was the balance between orchestra and DJ just right? And should this format be replicated across the country?


Synthony Photo: Facebook - Synthony

The atmosphere at the Auckland Town Hall was somewhat awkward. An hour had passed since the announced start time of 8:30pm, and still no sign of the Auckland Symphony Orchestra or the ringleader of tonight’s show, DJ General Lee.

Every light in the venue seemed to still be on, and a growing number of fourty-plus crowd members were getting increasingly restless. There were no seats. A man broke away from his girlfriend and approached my friend and I to complain about the time.

It definitely wasn’t a regular ASO show.

Eventually, the eighty members of the orchestra walked on stage, followed by conductor Peter Thomas. General Lee appeared at the back of the stage on a raised platform, flanked by laptops.

The crowd were vocal in their enthusiasm, and some members of the orchestra seemed taken aback at the din of cheering. Thomas was unfazed, loving it in fact.

A drum machine started to thump, and the familiar opening refrain of Fatboy Slim’s 'Right Here Right Now' began. The string section promptly doubled the original’s sampled orchestration.

The crowd screamed with recognition, as they did at the start of every song over the course of the night. Thomas continued to interact with them, whipping them up whenever the energy threatened to flag.  

What followed was a succession of the last thirty year’s biggest dance tunes. EDM anthems from Eric Prydz and Junior Jack provided big bold melodic lines in a house/trance style, and classics from Derrick May, Robert Miles, and Faithless satiated the crowd’s appetite for nostalgia.

As the night wore on the median age in the room dropped, and it was increasingly filled with pastel attire and glow sticks.

The main issue of contention was the sound mix. The electronic stems coming from the General’s laptop dominated the mix, meaning a lot of bass thump, but not much room for the orchestra to peek through.

In fact all eighty members struggled to make their presence felt.

Strings tended to double and bolster synth lines, and brass burbled through occasionally. The rhythm section was, as you’d imagine, the most prominent part, and the most audible.

At one point a man sucking a lollipop approached me and gestured that I should be dancing more enthusiastically.

Loud rhythmic clapping was constant, even when there was no song playing. This was definitely a rave. Although despite the promoter’s warning to “leave your nan at home”, there were plenty of sixty-plus women in attendance.

The setlist followed that of BBC's Ibiza Prom reasonably closely, with two exceptions proving to be highlights.

The Chemical Brothers’ Galvanise dropped the tempo and gave the strings some Middle East-influenced melodies to duplicate, and was the lone entry to represent hip hop, as Q Tip’s vocals in the original track were still present.

And Chase and Status’ 'Blind Faith' lowered the bpm even further, providing a scorching dubstep backdrop for vocalist Tali’s soulful vocals.

Elsewhere the set began to blur. It became obvious that when played in succession, tracks like Daft Punk’s 'One More Time', Eric Prydz 'Pjanoo' and The Shapeshifters’ 'Lola’s Theme' follow a similar rhythmic and melodic template. This type of disco-infused techno was heavily favoured, causing big parts of the show to congeal into similarity.

There was also a conspicuous absence of any local tunes. New Zealand dance music has a rich history, so it seems a shame that there was no room for anything by Shapeshifter, or Strawpeople, or Recloose.

But there were no complaints to be heard from the audience. They were rapt from the start, and raucous in their approval.

The orchestra seemed to have a great time too, singing along, dancing where they stood, and joining in the applause. Peter Thomas and General Lee were beaming throughout.

The mood was celebratory, as a genre usually relegated to clubs and festivals got dressed up in orchestration and had a night out at the Town Hall.

Check out the full BBC concert that Synthony was based on: