Ziggy played the cello – and it was very good!

New York composer / conductor Evan¬†Ziporyn explained at the beginning of the performance that he had conceived this orchestral re-working of David Bowie’s final album as way of dealing with his grief over the artist’s death. Working with brilliant cellist, Maya Beiser, based on his realisation that Bowie’s vocal range was the same as a cello, the results are quite spectacular. The performance is backed by Ziporyn’s Ambient Orchestra, supplemented by local musicians from the Elder Conservatorium.

The choice of material really makes this work. Blackstar, released just days before the singer’s death, is a brilliant record – challenging, moving and sometimes experimental, it’s the kind of music that lends itself to this kind of reinterpretation. Taking over the vocal line, you can hear Bowie’s singing in Beiser’s expressive playing. And the soloist has quite a stage presence – transfixing you as she inhabits the music (“with screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo”).

Blackstar is also the kind of expressive work that continues to reveal itself. And given the circumstances of its release (also made several years after Bowie had retired from live performance), we were denied ever hearing the material played live. So at least a project like this can deliver that experience.

The performance presented the seven tracks of the album from beginning to end, followed by some extra pieces to flesh out the show. For the most part, the songs were rendered with reverence for the the original versions – only fleshing them out with the additional instrumentation afforded here. The exception was “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) – the drum and bass aesthetic of the source material was never really going to work in this setting, resulting in a brooding orchestral version that maintained the song’s underlying sense of menace.

The standout was the opening title work – perfectly structured as a piece of chamber music. The transition at its midpoint was something truly beautiful and moving.

When committing to the full rendering of an album in such a context, some of the material is going to work better than others. ”Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’, with its racing rhythm and dissonant instrumentation, was the weakest link here, feeling a little out of place against the other pieces. Everything else, however, was excellent, with other highlights including ‘Lazarus’ and the melancholy of Bowie’s final statement, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’.

We were then treated to an extended of encore, starting with Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’, Ziporyn dedicating this with a wish that Bowie still walked amongst us. It might have seemed a slightly strange choice but was quite a touching moment, with the orchestra living up to its ambient nature following the album’s more visceral material.

This was followed by three more Bowie tracks, ‘Let’s Dance’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Life on Mars’. Possibly Bowie’s greatest song and ripe for this sort of reinvention, the final piece was a fitting a finale to an excellent show that served as another reminder of Bowie’s creative genius.

4 1/2 stars

Reviewed by Matthew Trainor