Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells

Friday 13th August 2021

Royal Festival Hall, London

OK, so let me be totally honest, my musical preferences are almost totally classical, so to walk into the auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall and not see a symphony orchestra on the stage was for me a strange experience. What I did see was two mightily impressive sets of percussion at the rear on either side of the stage, plus some random guitars, keyboards and piano. We were set to hear the latest version of Mike Oldfield’s iconic Tubular Bells.

To start with, we heard three other pieces. For me the most impressive was Robin A. Smith’s 'The Gem', a piece with a backdrop of an ever evolving sphere, by visual artist Jens Beyrich. The music begins with ethereal, other-worldly sounds, soft guitar, tinkling percussion, gradually building up to a thunderous climax, the pounding rhythms reminding me of some 20th century classical scores by the likes of Stravinsky, Bartok and even my own favourite, Shostakovich.

The second piece, Oldfield’s own 'Summit Day', was inspired by the efforts to reach the summit of those who have climbed Everest. A gorgeous cello solo begins the piece; I had been wondering about the poor cellist desperately trying to make himself heard against the din, but here was his moment to shine, which he certainly did. The piece spectacularly reaches the summit.

At this point I must of course mention the guitarists, especially Maxime Obadia, described as a multi-instrumentalist, which was no exaggeration. We were fortunate to be seated at the same side of the hall where he was performing. During the course of this and the other pieces, he changed instruments numerous times, from various electric guitars to acoustic guitars and mandolin, aided by his able assistant who was kneeling by his side with the next instrument and the appropriate plug in. The final piece, Oldfield’s 'Moonlight Shadow', was beautifully sung by Sophie Rohleder, who appeared Sandie Shaw-like barefoot and in a 60’s style smock dress.

And so to the main event after the interval. Much can be said about this presentation of Tubular Bells and I was concerned how much the dance troupe might detract from the music. Unlike classical ballet, the music was not written with dance in mind, but then this wasn’t dance, but acrobatics which at times were reminiscent of the Olympic gymnastics competition. Anyone who has seen Cirque du Soleil will be familiar with the genre.

Remembering the original LP, if I was short of time I’d always listen to the first side (the “famous” bit) and often give side 2 a miss. Maybe it was because of this that the concentration focussed more on the music in Part 1, although the skill of the performers was there for all to see. However, in Part 2 the choreography did seem to complement the music. Spectacular, almost death-defying feats that left you with your heart in your mouth at times. Aside from the odd wobble, the Circa Ensemble were brilliant.

All being said, I don’t think that anyone seeing/hearing this juxtaposition of music and acrobatics will have gone away disappointed. Much credit to the musicians, who were superb. Maybe it was the fault of the acoustic of the hall that some details were not as clear as they might have been, the mandolin was almost inaudible when announced by Samuel West’s disembodied Master of Ceremonies.

Hearing the music again after many decades was so enjoyable, and, more to the point, hearing live music again so satisfying. For the performers themselves we can only guess at the emotional wreckage of the past year or so, and hope that the projected world tour over the next two years can indeed go ahead.

Stuart Law