The Auckland Symphony Orchestra, George FM, and Spark joined forces again for two sold-out shows of Synthony. This unique alliance of organisers saw the Auckland Town Hall become a musky rave pit, fully equipped with lasers, DJs and classical musicians.
In its second year running, Synthony melds the orchestration of the Auckland Symphony with 20 popular dance numbers from the last 30 years. Joined by vocalists’ P Digsss, Ria Hall, Omega Levine and Helen Corry, along with DJ icons Greg Churchill and Dick Johnson, the event’s website boasts that sh*t will be lost:
“Leave your Nan at home, this is not an orchestra as you know it or a sit down affair. Lights, lasers and a state of the art sound system make this an event you will lose your sh*t at.”
Arriving a little early to the 8.30 door opening, I was invited backstage to find the 80-piece symphony surrounded by towers of empty Sal's Pizza boxes. Tinkering with bows, valves, mallets, and other tools that comprise New Zealand’s largest community orchestra, the musicians seemed ready to rave. I spoke with concertmaster and violinist Lynley Bilby about how the orchestra prepares for such a performance.
“We are relying on the conductor and the click track to keep in time. Some of our instruments are miked because they are just getting lost with the competition from the DJ, the organ, and just everything else.”
And how does this repertoire tonight compare to other classical pieces you play?
“The rave repertoire is out there! The rhythms are as challenging as any classical symphony piece that we would play, there are a couple of parts that had to be slowed down because they were just too difficult.”
Ryan Youens is the man who adapts the dance tracks for the orchestra, producing music for the London Metropolitan Orchestra, Budapest Scoring Orchestra and the Dutch Radio Chamber Orchestra alongside artists such as Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn, I asked him how he approaches composing something like Synthony.
“There is so much in the tracks already, and you have so much choice with a massive orchestra. You just need to draw everything out, spread them around, shaping the whole track. Over a few months I write all these different arrangements, some of them are amazing and some of them we were not so sure about”
But the original 20 tracks remained?
“Oh yeah, there was one we weren’t sure about but yeah it made it in this year.”
Before being whisked off, Ryan noted that “there are some parts, like in Sweet Dreams, where the orchestra could just play by themselves and it will sound like the original track you know, but there are other tracks where like they are very much complementing the electronics.”
Now I was getting excited.
Finding a cosy spot centre stage, I bounced and brushed shoulders to Greg Churchill’s prog-house beats. Playing the Auckland DJ circuit for over a decade, his thumping set vibrated through a now stuffed Town Hall. Finishing around 10pm, both the floor and band stand was packed full. Interesting smells began to emerge, the floor got sticky, and those in the seated area rose to their feet as the orchestra took stage.
The crowd’s wails were greeted with beaming (maybe a little nerve-wracked) smiles from the string, brass, woodwind and percussion sections. Placed by section upon the different tiers on the stage, the orchestra rose up the back wall towards the mighty Orgelbau organ with a 3 screen setup hanging above displaying a cosmic light show – it looked pretty darn magical.
The host of the evening was George FM’s General Lee who, after an epic war drum crescendo, introduced award-winning Ria Hall to Robin S’s Show Me Love. With the DJ pads and orchestra’s string section both holding the iconic dance track’s build up, along with a powerful voice near perfect to the original, it was clear off the bat that this night would only add something special to the popular dance tracks.
Like Lynley, I was cautious that the instrumentation might be too quiet, standing up against speakers only a crane would have been able to assemble. Understanding why some of musicians had to be miked, I could still hear each section against a bassy backdrop of heavy house kicks and punchy snares.
... violins jived into where the synth cuts-off, the cellos emulated a bass pad, trumpets and organ climbed into the drop – a compositional feat of orchestration work.
The dance floor swelled as the light show really ramped up to The Chemical Brother's Star Guitar. Grid laser patterns shot out over the crowd, dividing the dance floor from the not-so-seating stalls. Visuals of a rising kaleidoscope grid world matched the enveloped synth lines, elevating the crowd to the ceiling. Along with drawn-out strings, piercing horns and kick-contending percussion, the visuals blasted the crowd's eyes and ears back to 2002.
There were moments where the steaming crowd just stood in awe. Intense harmonies revolved around the track’s crazy catchy melody – violins jived into where the synth cuts-off, the cellos emulated a bass pad, trumpets and organ climbed into the drop – a compositional feat of orchestration work.
Crowd favourite was Galvanize by The Chemical Brothers. The back-and-forth between the melodies in this track really allowed the DJ/Orchestra dynamic to shine. A psychedelic display of visuals flashed in time to spikey staccato strings, bellowing brass lines and marching drum rhythms. The orchestra wrapped up at around 11.30 with P Digss singing Shapeshifter’s 2006 track Electric Dream.
With a healthy demand for an encore, the conductor Peter Thomas kicked everyone back into gear with another round of Eurythmic’s Sweet Dreams. Props to the enduring musicians who played for over an hour and a half to a high octane list of dance anthems, and the sound and light technicians who, despite a couple of technical issues at the start, put on a mesmerising and mind-blowing show.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Max Lemesh from maxlemesh.com for all the photographs in this article.
2018 Synthony Set List
- Robin S - Show Me Love
- Inner City - Good Life
- The Chemical Brothers - Star Guitar
- Robert Miles - Children
- Laurent Garnier - The Man With The Red Face
- Roger Sanchez - Another Chance
- ATB - 9 Pm (Till I Come)
- Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams
- Moloko - Sing It Back
- Eric Prydz - Pjanoo
- Avicii - Levels
- Faithless - Insomnia
- The Chemical Brothers - Galvanize
- Disclosure - Latch
- Underworld - Born Slippy (Nuxx)
- Tiesto - Adagio for Strings
- Delerium - Silence (ft. Sarah McLachlan)
- Soul Centrals – You Got the Love
- Shapeshifter - Electric Dream
- Eurythmics - Sweet Dreams