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As I walk towards the sounds of rumbling bass and thunderous drums, I see flashing laser lights in the distance briefly break up the dark night. Through the trees and down the hill, tens of thousands of gyrating bodies form a big, black human sea, spread before the open-air stage. They are briefly lit up, moving as one big fleshy mass, before they fade back into the shadows until the next laser beam hits. This evening in Sydney’s Domain is perfect, one of those magical nights that marks the long awaited shift from Winter to Spring. It’s warm with a gentle breeze, and the feeling of excitement is palpable.
As I head through the gates and approach the stage, this afternoon-turned-night concert has the atmosphere of a fully-fledged festival. Folks have been here since 5pm, drinking and dancing to DJs for over 3 hours, and the deeper into the crowd I go, the clearer this becomes. A 20-something year old guy is bouncing around behind me as though he has a pogo stick, squawking “Cuckoo!”. His friend is crouched down on the grass, intensely guarding 9 very full paper cups of beer, making a barrier with his outstretched arms.
There are rows of bars, food stalls and fairy lights draped in the shape of a big top over the crowds. Scattering the outskirts of the die-hard fans, people are lazily sprawled across the grass on picnic blankets underneath the yawning sky. The cityscape sparkles, tall and proud, beyond the spread of the lush green park.
The stage is ablaze with colour and light. Huge LED screens flash bright blues and reds, making a grandiose backdrop to the 50-piece Sydney Symphony Orchestra that is assembled on it. They fire up. Soaring strings and deliciously deep horns jump into gear, resonating in perfect harmony. The crowd roars with glee.
The screens melt into a bubbling red, and tiny volcanic sparks explode behind the band. Emma Louise enters the stage in a long white gown. She sings Two Bodies. It’s downbeat, and her voice floats along with the strings, both of them hovering above the massive vibrating subs.
Louise leaves the stage and the band bursts into With You featuring Grovesnor. Bright blue lights, and black and navy zebra print projected on the screens, transform the scene into a strange underwater zoo. The strings flutter, ducking and weaving until a stabbing kick cleanly cuts through. The lights dip back down to a deep red for Sunshine.
“MAKE SOME NOISE SYD-NAAY”
It’s not Reggie Watts, the original featured artist for this song. It’s hard to make out just who-the-hell it is attempting to fill the legendary shoes that belong to Reggie. But, he does the best he can, climbing up high onto a platform behind the orchestra. Wearing a cowboy hat, he dances in front of dusk red Californian palm trees and skies, cast up onto the massive screens. The dance moves starting to take shape in the crowd reflect the Calypso feel of this song.
The blue lights fall away and a deep dark galaxy appears, an odd contrast to the wispy, cloud covered night sky that frames it. A 1900’s radio voice rambles over the dramatic orchestral soundtrack, feeling akin to an open air showing of an old black and white film. Finally, another massive kick breaks through. Descending arpeggiated violins start to trickle in, shortly joined by disco-funk “wakka wakka” wah wah guitar and punchy 80’s bass lines. It shifts into Heart Attack with Owl Eyes on vocals.
There’s something cheesy about an orchestra playing pop music arrangements, be it ABBA or Daft Punk or Flight Facilities. It’s squeaky clean, the transitions seamless, no room for impulses or deviation from the score. But there’s a sweetness about it, too. It’s not there to be disassembled and overanalysed. The orchestra’s purpose is to dramatize the delivery of this playful disco pop, heightening the fun and freedom in the music. As I walk away slightly early to avoid the barrage of crowds that will soon flood the gates, the sound of the fading orchestra drifts behind me, ethereal in the distance. The night still feels new.
Image: Flight Facilities perform with Sydney Symphony Orchestra @ The Domain 2016 / Photo By Maria Boyadgis