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Gladiator In Concert – Event Review

Score composed by Hans Zimmer
Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and English Chamber Choir with vocal soloist Lisa Gerrard
Conducted by Justin Freer

There are two films that have defined the cinematic portrayal of Roman gladiators. One is the 1960 film Spartacus and the other is Ridley Scott’s Gladiator released in the UK in 2000. Spartacus was undoubtedly an epic film, but it is Gladiator that rekindled interest in entertainment centred around ancient Greek and Roman culture over the last 18 years. This influence is in no small part due to its brilliant and dramatic soundtrack. This weekend the Royal Albert Hall resumed their film concert programme with a performance of Gladiator that shook the seats and brought the audience to their feet with applause and excitement.

In 2000, I was 17 years old and my interest in Ancient Rome boarded on obsession. I was already studying the period in school and was so in love with the subject that I went on to study Classics at university. I vividly remember seeing Gladiator in the cinema when it was first released and I lapped up every moment of the action and expressive portrayal of the Romans. I was fully aware that the film is horrendously historically inaccurate (Emperor Marcus Aurelius died of natural causes, most likely the plague, rather than being murdered by his son. Commodus was in turn assassinated by his personal trainer not a general-turned-gladiator). But still I stared with wide-eyed wonder at the recreation of the Coliseum.

Gladiator was a commercial success at the box office and won five Academy Awards, combing both breathtaking action, gory fight scenes, artistic cinematography and some great one liners in the script. Who can forget the words ‘My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius…?’ But perhaps one of the most famous artistic features of the film is its soundtrack. Composer Hans Zimmer uses multiple musical influences from percussive beats, classical choral melodies to exotic themes played on Spanish-style guitars and the Armenian duduk. Some critics have accused Zimmer of plagiarising famous composers as the music during Gladiator’s battle scenes more than resembles Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War. The music played to signal Commodus’ arrival in Rome could have come straight out of a march composed by Wagner. Zimmer does tread a narrow path when imitating great musical works, but he still must be credited with having written a score that fits the action on screen like a glove and is a delight to listen to.

There is music or sound being played for almost the entire film, so the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra were tasked with an exhausting concert where they were almost always performing, whether it be a single percussionist clapping her hands or the horn section and the strings furiously playing at breakneck speed. Ridley Scott and Hans Zimmer plunge the audience straight in to the action right at the start of the film with a rousing battle accompanied by a piece of music which includes the majority of the orchestra, the English Chamber Choir and solo vocalist Lisa Gerrard. If any audience member was feeling sleepy in the warmth of the Royal Albert Hall, they were immediately woken up by the arrival of the Romans in Germania.

Despite Zimmer’s score already possessing an ethnic feel to its many tracks thanks to a variety of percussive instruments and the duduk, it is Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals that truly emphasise the exotic melodies in the music. Gerrard’s composition and contralto voice brings an other-worldliness to the film emphasising the far reach of the Roman Empire and the many different countries it conquered. Her most famous song in the soundtrack ‘Now We are Free’ is sung with lyrics that are filled with understandable emotion but also sound completely alien. She composed the track in her own idioglossia; a language that she made up as a child.

Gladiator is the perfect film for a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The venue, shaped like a coliseum itself with its classical influences carved on the outside of the building, housed a concert that Justin Freer masterfully and passionately conducted. The film is a visual epic on the big screen, but it was Lisa Gerrard’s haunting and melancholy voice that stole the show. The audience did what all good audiences do when treated to a brilliant artistic performance, they stood in ovation and cheered. I willingly joined them.

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