Ambient Orchestra Presents David Bowie’s Blackstar @ Elder Hall, Adelaide, 17/3/2019

Composer and conductor Evan Ziporyn commences the afternoon with a contextual preamble regarding the performance of David Bowie’s “self-eulogy”, his Blackstar album to follow as having arisen from a memorial concert. He states that original members of the Ambient Orchestra have been joined by students from the Elder Conservatorium of Music playing mostly acoustic instruments and that renowned cellist Maya Beiser’s playing is in the same range as Bowie’s voice, acting as a substitute as well as at times carrying the guitar and saxophone parts “and so on”.  

Evan’s description of Maya’s playing is accurate in second part of title track where it is out front and works well as a proxy for Bowie’s vocals although previously in the song it had been muddied in the mix and this is a general representation of how the rest of the performance comes across. Second song‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore was chaotic, Maya’s cello-vocal sounding strained, too high pitched and scraping and midway through this song, in a fit of excited conducting, Evan accidentally strikes Maya with his baton and they exchange cheeky glances afterwards. During Lazarus, the muted saxophones sound like a male choir (whereas on the original recording they sound like actual saxophones). Maya is an obvious visual draw, unlike regular, reserved classical musicians, she loses herself in the song, her head held back, nodding along to the other musicians, wiggling in her seat like a loose stringed puppet. I consider that perhaps Evan is situated on stage too close to her after they clash for a second time and he accidentally hits her cello bow causing it to bounce on the strings although it is barely noticeable in the context of the music being played.

Maya performs a distorted cello-guitar solo at the start of the Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) and overall the song seems most suited to orchestral arrangement (having been performed with the Maria Schneider Orchestra for it’s earliest appearance on a compilation album prior to appearing on the Blackstar album) and sounds like a film noir soundtrack.

Some songs work better with Maya’s cello as a vocal substitute such as in Girl Loves Me where it is to the fore and Dollar Days works well early on with muted percussion but then loses something as it progresses. It’s not the performance, just that it doesn’t seem suited to this type of arrangement. It flows into the final song of the album, I Can’t Give Everything Away without an actual break and during this song there is a repeat of Maya’s strained, abrasive, scratching cello-vocal.

Maya says, “We all have our own private relationship with Bowie” before they play the Pink Floyd song Wish You Were Here for him. The ghostly ambient, seemingly improvised solo cello intro leads into an elongated symphonic version that was a good example of how the Bowie songs could have been improved upon in this context. The audience applauds this performance but Maya goes straight into another dynamic cello-guitar solo that opens Let’s Dance. Although enjoyable, unfortunately it did come across like a high school brass band with a cello-vocal over the top of it (and it is here I will make an obscure reference and direct the reader to seek out the Portsmouth Sinfonia).

For a further encore, Evan refers to Bowie in the same sentence as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms and Maya plays a short excerpt of Cello Suite in G major: Prelude by the former before going into Ziggy Stardust. The final song Life On Mars is probably the most successful due to the presence of strings in the original version.

Even though percussion is integral to the original Blackstar material, perhaps some liberties could have been taken with regard to the over-present drums. Evan said at the start that they were trying to be faithful but given room to move maybe some of the less successful songs performed could have worked better.

Fringe Review By Jason Leigh

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