Review: Bang bang – Johann Strauss Gala’s 40th anniversary performance at the Fairfield Halls

By - Tuesday 30th December, 2014

Liz Sheppard-Jones joins fifty shades of grey fandom at the Fairfield Halls

Johann Strauss gala.
Photo by James Delanoy, used with permission.

This is senior entertainment, as I realised whilst I waited in the Fairfield Halls foyer for my boyfriend to join me for the show. (In the end, he missed the first half because of the horrible state of the post-Christmas M25.) We young ‘uns (I use the term laughingly) were considerably outnumbered in the auditorium by the serried ranks of silver. That doesn’t necessarily put me off – it’s a shame when things that are genuinely enjoyable don’t attract new audiences.

The set was pretty cool – big black and white tiles and candelabras straight from Dracula’s castle. And it was a lovely show. I’d already interviewed conductor and presenter Rainer Hersch and found him delightful, and on stage he’s funny and charming. “This is,” he announced as he introduced the Johann Strauss orchestra, “the oldest tribute band in England”.

The jokes were gentle and Last Night At The Proms-ish, with just the one swing at New Addington to give local flavour, and the delight of those around me obvious: finger-tapping was widespread and audience participation (clapping and humming under the baton of Rainer Hersch) enthusiastic. I’ve never actually heard an orchestra that also sings and burst balloons as this one did, and it’s fun when performers do the unexpected on stage. I just found it all a bit puzzling.

A muscular soprano arrived at speed

A waltz is a waltz to me, and it gets all a bit same-y; I found myself waltzed into a state of (possibly post-Christmas) sleepiness. If you know anything about it, they’re probably not the same at all: I could hear the sound effects in the Thunder And Lightning polka, and the explosions in the explosions one, but after a while one bang is very like another, as I’m sure you’ll agree, and it’s easy to nod off.

Rainer Hersch.
Photo by James Delanoy, used with permission.

There’s a lot of background information about the music in the programme (ten full pages of text) and perhaps if I’d read it things would have become clearer, but I didn’t. So while the dancers were beautiful, I didn’t quite understand what I was watching: it seems to be ballet/ballroom fusion, with men on their tiptoes (although sadly clad in spacious trousers rather than the tights one would wish for to brighten things up), women in heels (only little ones) nevertheless being lifted up and down a lot, and everyone waving their arms Swan Lake-ishly.

There was also a soprano, Kristy Swift, and she was very good, but her first entrance gave me the giggles: after the girlish leaping and floating of the Johann Strauss dancers, the arrival of a more muscular lass, moving at speed, was unintentionally comedic. Whilst she warbled away and hit the high notes in champagne-flute-shattering style, I found myself thinking of writer and satirist Dorothy Parker’s remark: “People who like this sort of thing will find this is the sort of thing they like.”

What really did make me chuckle was the Windows Start-Up Waltz: the orchestra reproduced the sounds a computer makes on starting up and closing, which was funny, then strung them together with other familiar PC sounds (the ping as an email hits your inbox and the flat, discouraging clunk your technology makes when it doesn’t like what you just did) into a dance.

Johann Strauss Gala is very enjoyable to a lot of people, and in a mild sort of way, I have become one of them. It was an agreeable Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year, and I did learn that the galas – which have toured the globe – began in Croydon (where else?) exactly forty years ago. It’s another of our gifts to the world. My boyfriend and I left the elegance of the nineteenth century ballroom with a warm glow of pride and headed for the pub.

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Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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