THOMAS CURY reviews Live Music Society’s annual extravaganza at the Shaw Theatre.

Rhapsody is billed as ‘the biggest event on the Live Music calendar.’ Hosted by UCLU Live Music Society at the Shaw Theatre, over 40 UCL musicians take to the stage to perform their reworking of well known songs.

The sheer scope and scale of this production is admirable, but Rhapsody was also largely about showcasing the musical talents of UCL’s diverse and versatile student body. The stage design was distinctly minimalist: there is no ornate visual backdrop, no flashy strobe lights. Instead, the production team opts for a sparse look to foreground the complex arrangements created by the musicians.

One of the most unique elements of the performance was the unconventional mash-ups of classic songs. Arguably the most notable of these was ‘Seven Dreams’, which involved the unexpected marriage of the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ and the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’. The latter’s icy synths were swapped out for warm strings and the song’s iconic refrain was laced into the texture of ‘Seven Nation Army’, creating an effective mixture of raw energy and ghostly ambience. Ultimately, however, the combination felt slightly awkward— when smashed together, the propulsive power of ‘Seven Nation Army’ and the danceable rhythm of ‘Sweet Dreams’ served to cancel one another out.

Image courtesy of Danté Kim

Despite these relative missteps in execution, there was ambition and zeal in abundance. Covers often fall into the trap of mechanically rehashing the original material without innovation. However, during Rhapsody, classic songs that have become cliché karaoke material were repurposed and given new life. Tears For Fears’ ‘Mad World’  was beautifully re-imagined as a pensive slow burner. Alessandra Anderson-Lewis slowed down the tempo considerably, whilst stripping back the instrumentation, so that the lyrics were laid bare. The result was a painful, emotional exorcism, culminating in a powerful vocal climax that captured the burden of a mundane existence.

While this particular rendition opted for a more stripped-back approach, there was no shortage of complex and multilayered arrangements. Bethany Graves’ and Emily Craig’s arrangement of ‘Someone Like You’ was perhaps the most bewildering of all of these. Adele’s original is a simple piano ballad, but here it was a constantly changing musical landscape featuring pop-rock riffs and folky embellishments. Graves added – as she aptly describes in the program – ‘nostalgic “teen drama” chords’ and huge drums to the song, before an explosive chorus blossoms into a gargantuan wall of sound with theatrical strings. They even used a mandolin, an unnecessary bit of pseudo-folk courtesy of Mumford & Sons. Though it was impressive to see how many different emotions and dynamics could be packed into a single arrangement, it felt too melodramatic. Much of the power of the original came from its spareness, so it seemed excessive to slather the song with additional instrumentation and radical re-orchestration. In this case, less is more.

Image courtesy of Danté Kim

In between each performance were clips from the Bloomsbury Sessions, where UCL musicians performed intimate renditions of original songs in the studio.  These clips, beautifully shot and edited by Nick Mastrini, showcased a wide variety of approaches and styles. Standing out from the crowd, however, was Cordelia Gartside’s ‘Medea’. Gartside’s tender vocals and delicate imagery proved a winning combination; and although the instrumentation was minimal, the song felt vivid and richly textured.

The show’s final performance ended the night off on a high note. Arrager Luke Purwar and Musical Director Charlie Zhu knew better than to tamper too much with Taylor Swift’s pop genius on ‘Shake it Off’. Aside from the addition of wind elements, the arrangement largely stuck to Swift’s winning formula. It was up to the performers to do justice to the original’s full and energetic sound, which they did with gusto.

Though not everything worked, the sheer ambition and effort of Rhapsody was tangible. The evening felt balanced and well-thought through— there were enough changes in mood, styles and textures to keep proceedings engaging. In the show’s latter half, there were a couple of moments of much needed comic relief: at one point during ‘Do Your Bills’, lead vocalist Simon Whitaker arrived on stage with an elaborate and ridiculous outfit, complete with a velvet robe and silly glasses. Rhapsody was a night of energy, fun and ambition, radiating an enthusiasm that reached far beyond the boundaries of the stage.