In August 2012, Rick Wakeman entered Abbey Road Studio 2 to re-record his ’74 blockbuster Journey The Centre Of The Earth. With 20 extra minutes to add to the LP-sized score, he recruited the Orion Orchestra – a collective of young musicians hand-picked by artistic director Toby Purser – to provide the stunning instrumentation for his rekindled work.
Tonight is a fundraiser and 10-year anniversary for Orion; it’s a tough classical world out there and these young men and women can’t live by concert performances alone. And so, prior to Rick’s upcoming Yet Another Evening With… tour, the grumpy old rockstar appears as host, bringing stories and songs to the Queen Elizabeth Hall and joined by a massed choir consisting of boys of The Schola Cantorum and the girls chamber choir of the Old Palace of John Whitgift School.
No drum kit, no guitar or bass amp, not so much as a Moog or Mellotron infiltrates this sumptuous interior as Rick pulls up a stool to the Steinway, front and centre of the stage. The Tudor rock of Catherine Howard feels right in this setting, its themes gaining gravitas and topicality thanks to the popularity of BBC TV’s recent Wolf Hall spectacular. With the removal of electronics, Wakeman’s expertise on the piano shines through. His trademark florid style, obeying the prog mantra of never using one note when you can use 20, results in dizzying digital flourishes.
Introducing Morning Has Broken he reveals the building blocks to what he, as a session musician, turned from a one-minute hymn to a three-minute pop song, a composition that remained elusive to many a pianist. “They had to play it on Top Of The Pops. So they said to me, ‘Can you tell us how you did it?’ and I said, ‘Nah.’”. When the choirs unite at the climax, it’s a stoic heart that fails to be moved.
For the Chopin-esque After The Ball, we’re told that its melody also proved to be elusive - to its own composer. When recording the White Rock soundtrack he improvised the three-minute piece in sync to the ice skating section of the film as he hadn’t prepared enough music, only for the producer to request a second take. Oops. It’s another little vignette that has us in stitches.
The Myths And Legends… is distilled to an orchestral suite and Greek Cypriot soprano Katerina Mina is joined by a sparkly-jacketed fellow native Sarbel. A seasoned opera singer himself, his voice is undoubtedly smooth but its nasal tone and slightly apologetic croon robs the Arthur songs of the power and the glory of Ashley Holt’s originals. Journey To The Centre Of The Earth also gets the abridged treatment with arrangements resembling mini concertos for piano, and an electrifying contribution by the Orion to Grieg’s Hall Of The Mountain King.
We did hope for Life On Mars, but the main set closes with a double helping of Beatles - Help! in the style of Deep Purple and Eleanor Rigby as imagined by Prokofiev. An encore of Merlin The Magician makes up for its omission from the Arthur suite.
With Orion at his side this was never going to be ‘yet another evening’. A signpost to our classical music stars of tomorrow, it was satisfyingly both mythical, and legendary.