Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra

Last Sunday, some friends and I went to Usher Hall, a very beautiful venue in Edinburgh, to see Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra. If you are like me, you probably think of Bill Bailey as the guy from Black Books, and possibly a frequent guest on British panel shows on television, but he is actually also a stand up comedian, and, perhaps more relevant in this case, a classically trained musician. I quote from Wikipedia:


Bailey is a talented pianist and guitarist and has perfect pitch. His stand-up routines often feature music from genres such as jazz, rock (most notably prog rock from the early seventies), drum’n’bass, rave and classical, usually for comic value. Favourite instruments include the keyboard, guitar, theremin, kazoo and bongos.

Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra is, as the name suggests, a guide to the orchestra, and in addition to Bill Bailey, there was the BBC Scottish Symphony Orcestra, conducted by Anne Dudley. Bailey began the show by thanking us for going out to watch live music, rather than staying at home watching the final of X-factor, which apparently was on the same day. He then went on to tell us about the first time he went to a concert with an orchestra, and why he likes it so much. While talking about this, he would use the orchestra quite a bit to make his points. He would make the orchestra play a small piece of music, and then make them play it again, with only certain instruments, and again, with even fewer, lifting out the instruments he was talking about to really let us hear them.

Once before, I have been to a concert where something similar happened. It was on the 18th of January, 2008, in Trondheim, at a concert with Trondheim Symfoniorkester, conducted by the British musician and conductor Andrew Manze. Manze would do much the same as Bailey, in that he would talk a little bit about each piece they played, frequently making the orchestra play small excerpts, essentially treating the entire orchestra like a cd-player, so he could better explain why he liked a particular part. I had never been to a classical concert where the conductor talked quite as much about the music they played, but Manze is an excellent speaker and I enjoyed it immensely.

The concert with Manze was mainly a concert, and the talking was limited to a few minutes between each piece, whereas Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra was at least equally much a comedy show. However, Bailey uses a lot of music in his comedy, ranging from playing “The Swan” from “Carnival of the Animals” on tuned cow bells to miming a 70s police show just by music. It did, however, contain some serious pieces of classcial music, like “Sunrise” from “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, as well as Bailey speaking with tremendous enthusiasm about the orchestra and it’s different instruments.

It is clear that Bill Bailey cares a lot about the orchestra, and also that he wants people to enjoy it, and I belive shows like this, which combine music with a bit of explanation, can actually help people appreciate a classical concert more. In addition, I got the impression that the musicians were having great fun. I imagine it can be quite gratifying, if you are playing a “low profile” instrument like the bassoon, to suddenly have 10 minutes of a performance dedicated to focusing people’s attention on you and your instrument.

Unfortunately, the tour is finished, but I understand the show can be found on DVD, and it’s certainly on my list of things to look out for.

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