Tubular Bells – the Fiftieth Anniversary Experience

Simon Hale talks to conductor Robin Smith about his upcoming tour of the legendary album.

Mike Oldfield’s multi-award-winning album Tubular Bells is to be performed in a reimagined version live in concert at The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham on Monday 13th February to celebrate the album’s 50th anniversary. We caught up with its arranger and conductor Robin Smith to find out more.

What is so special about Tubular Bells and its history?

“Mike Oldfield was only 17 in 1971 when he started composing Tubular Bells. When he recorded it as his debut studio album, released two years later, he played almost all the instruments on it. As a musical journey through classical, jazz, folk, progressive rock and electronics, the album was without equal and went on to gain a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. In America, where millions of copies were sold, Tubular Bells was also known as the soundtrack for the horror film, The Exorcist.”

What was your reaction to first hearing the album?

“I was completely mesmerised and captivated by its ingenious uniqueness and how Mike wove together so many different genres into one complete work. I was training to be a classical musician at the time, studying composition at the Royal College of Music.”

How did your musical career progress?

“I was lucky enough to start fresh from college as the pianist and arranger for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, working with some great musicians like Guy Barker, Chris Hunter and Steve and Richard Sidwell. I’ve since gone on to a successful career as an arranger. I revel in the challenge and pleasure of creating new landscapes and new ways of looking and listening to cherished works.”

How did you get to collaborate with Mike Oldfield?

“I met Mike by chance in 1991 after working with his sister Sally as a session musician on her album, Natasha. Mike told his sister that he needed someone who could play keyboards, understand modern programming and software, and be an arranger for the world premier of Tubular Bells 2. Mike was preparing to perform the concert outside Edinburgh Castle and broadcast it live around the world, and Sally felt the two of us would work well together.”

How did the collaboration develop?

“The premiere of Tubular Bells 2 was one of the first concerts that involved using live musicians both rock and orchestral performing to synchronised audio elements. It was so successful that the following year it went on to tour Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall and all over Europe. Mike and I also collaborated on Tubular Bells 3 and the Millennium Bell, performed on the eve of 1999. The last time we worked together was at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics working with Danny Boyle. What was so wonderful about working with Mike was his amazing creative restraint. He would allow me to paint a musical picture and then very thoughtfully and carefully entwine his own personality and musicality to create something magical.”

What inspired your reimagined version of Tubular Bells?

“I started working on a reimagined version of Tubular Bells about six years after the London Olympics. I wanted to play a cinematic version for a new generation of concertgoers and Mike told me this was a great idea to embrace. I sat down and started recreating the work by altering the tempo and instruments and adding other nuances to give it a fresh vitality. Every melodic note is true to Mike’s original – embellished with colours and textures to heighten emotion and drama. I wanted to show that Mike is not only someone who can play a lot of instruments but is also a genuine composer. The reimagined version culminated in its premier at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2021 and a CD album and now a 50th anniversary UK tour.”

What is in store for concertgoers at the Birmingham premiere?

“There will be nine of us performing the concert: two percussionists and another bass player, two guitarists and another bass player, a cellist and a singer. I will be playing piano and keyboards and conducting from there. Among the musicians is the renowned guitarist Jay Stapley who first performed with me at the live Edinburgh concert for Tubular Bells 2. As well as performing the reimagined version of Tubular Bells, the concert will feature other works by Mike including Moonlight Shadow, Ommadawn, To France and Summit Day, as well as my own composition The Gem. I am so looking forward to seeing the audience at the Alex close up and inviting them to join us on our musical mystery tour.”

What is your musical experience of Birmingham?

“I love Birmingham’s music scene and have played in the city many times. I am also a great concert listener and recently enjoyed a thrilling performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony performed by the CBSO at Symphony Hall. Wearing another hat, I have also conducted the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra in Elvis Live at the NEC’s Resorts World Arena. We will be returning there for another hugely popular Elvis concert in October.”

Tickets for Tubular Bells Live in Concert – The 50th Anniversary Experience at The Alexandra, Birmingham on Monday 13th February are available here.

The Tubular Bells 50th anniversary UK tour is presented by Fiery Angel Entertainment and Senbla. Robin Smith’s recording of his CD album Tubular Bells Reimagined is available for purchase at tigermothshop.co.uk.