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Bond, James Bond

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Sept. 26 — The arts have exploded in downtown Grand Rapids much like the fall color does this time of year. Faced with a smorgasbord of choices for Friday night’s activity, no self respecting James Bond fan could pass up a chance at the Grand Rapids Symphony’s offering in their Fox Motors Pops Series, Shaken Not Stirred, the Music of James Bond.

No more complementary a program could have been selected to accompany ArtPrize, kicking off the first full weekend of its 17 day international art competition. James Bond the icon and the series of movies that introduced him interjected some fun and whimsy to the character. Local color and custom was incorporated from the locations the movies were shot. There was of course, suspense and intrigue but there was also the famous Bond double entendre, spoken in the most tense of moments. The movies were serious, but took a tongue in cheek view of the intelligence community at the time of the Cold War. ArtPrize can certainly claim some international flavor, as well as a healthy dose of home spun color. There has been some suspense, and I would imagine, some intrigue behind the scenes, too. The buzz ArtPrize has created rivals the buzz surrounding the release of the early Bond films. Thousands flocked downtown to partake in the revelry.

For their part, the Grand Rapids Symphony enlisted the services of “Jeans ‘N’ Classics”, a Canadian based sextet of musicians and vocalists. “Jeans” provides arrangements and accompaniment to symphony orchestras around the world. They select popular music which appeals to a broad range of listeners; their James Bond program being just one of many, and take it on the road, in this case to Grand Rapids. In town for the weekend series of performances at DeVos Performance Hall, Pianist Jon Regan quipped, “Thank you for putting on ArtPrize for us, that’s fabulous.” After being led on stage by a pair of sequined and suggestive Bond Girls, Regan cast his vote in the competition. “That’s my art prize, right there.”

The music began where only it could… Monte Norman’s “James Bond Theme” from 1962. First unveiled in the first of the Bond series Dr. No, the Bond theme appeared in every subsequent movie, the first 7 bars burned into every Bond fans’ memory bank. Rique Franks, of the “Jeans” conglomeration joined in delivering a smooth yet soaring rendition of “You Only Live Twice”. A beautiful string arrangement underscored the strength in her voice, never overpowering.

Neil Donnell, the other half of the “Jeans ‘N’ Classics” vocal team was soon welcomed. Dressed in a charcoal sharkskin suit and a pair of black Ray Ban “Wayfarer” shades he certainly looked the part of Tom Jones (no gold lame’). As he launched into the 1965 hit “Thunderball” one could hear that patented growl, the timbre and phrasing synonymous with Jones. Donnell, an accomplished session singer in Canada, would favor the audience with several other faithful renditions of some of our favorite artists throughout the evening. His singing on “We Have All the Time in the World,” taken from the Bond flick On His Majesty’s Secret Service paid wonderful homage to Louis Armstrong. Having discarded the sunglasses, Donnell captured the signature gravelly voice and physical mannerisms of Armstrong, the singer to a T. The most inspired singing from Donnell however, came after intermission. “Jeans” inclusion of some of the music from the James Bond spoof, Austin Powers, the Spy Who Shagged Me gave us the classic hit from Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get It On.” Donnell’s ability to hit the high notes a la Gaye, his pleading phrases; it had the normally sedate symphony audience resorting to hoots and shouts of exhortation.

The sprinkling of the Austin Powers music and selections from another Bond spoof, Casino Royale gave the program nice changes of pace from the traditional Bond fare. It also meant an opportunity to hear songs tailor made for orchestral arrangement. Rique Franks delivered the sultry Burt Bacharach tune, “The Look of Love.” The symphony’s principal oboist, Ellen Sherman matched Franks’ emotion with a beautiful solo. The entire Grand Rapids Symphony really got a chance to stretch out on the Quincy Jones piece, “Soul Bossa Nova,” long time symphony percussionist Bill Vits chiming in with perfectly timed “conga rubs”, a technique used to create unusual squeaks and grunts.

The “Jeans ‘N’ Classics musicians, Jon Regan on Piano, Peter Brennan on Guitar, Mitch Tyler on Bass and Jeff Christmas on drums offered stellar backup to the symphony all night long. The group did not take solos during the evening but really didn’t need to as Peter Brennan’s seamless arranging melded perfectly the quartet of rock musicians with our symphony. Considering the number of musicians John Berry used in his orchestra to bring off the music of Bond for the films and considering the number of musicians Quincy Jones was known to use to develop the fullness of sound that was his signature; the Grand Rapids Symphony, with just a fraction of voices, filled the performance hall with lush orchestrations and dynamic power. Conductor John Varineau, now in his 25th year, should be proud.

No evening of James Bond music would be complete without the quintessential movie theme. 1964’s “Goldfinger,” originally done by Shirley Bassey, made America sit up and take notice. Bond achieved superstar status with the movie and Bassey with the song. Rique Franks delivered the goods in this encore selection. The volume of her voice, the spark, the power, her phrasing; she was reminiscent of Bassey, yet unique, demonstrating great range. It was a perfect way to cap off the performance.

1,238 of us strolled out into the Friday night sky. We joined the thousands of ArtPrize attendees still perusing the streets. Rick DeVos was spied with his family. They could not help but smile at the throngs. It was indeed a banner night for ArtPrize, for the City and for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

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