Review: Planet Earth II: Live in Concert brings nature to life with the SSO and Eric Bana

Having just wrapped up its four city Australian tour, Planet Earth II: Live in Concert brought together Symphony Orchestras from around the country to present, live, the music from the acclaimed nature series of the same name. Accompanied by images from the series, and live narration from Australian actor Eric Bana, the night sounds like a surprising proposition – but one that was informed by the success of its predecessor, which toured in a similar fashion for some ten years.

The interest in the live soundtrack comes largely due to its composers – Jasha Klebe, Jacob Shea and Hans Zimmer, the latter of whom toured his own live orchestra retrospective in Australia just last year. In that production, Zimmer chose to showcase the music sans imagery from the films he had scored; in my interview with his Bleeding Fingers co-founder Russell Emanuel, this was because he wanted the audience to be fully immersed in the music, not the image. Indeed, anyone can watch the films at home for a similar experience. This strategy was only confirmed by experiencing Planet Earth II with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at Sydney’s ICC Theatre, conducted by Vanessa Scammell. It was quite easy to get lost in the series’ incredible images and forget the orchestra was there; from the adventures of a sloth looking for a mate, to the iguanas and penguins struggling to survive in some of the most remote locations on the planet.

To this, respect must be paid to the sound engineers, who did a remarkable job of mixing the live performers with the sound effects from the series. But you would have missed out if you didn’t gaze at the performers on the ICC’s massive stage – upon which the orchestra was performing to thousands in a packed room. The level of intricate detail that some of the performers were undertaking to bring us that music, making it look so effortless, is a joy to behold, as it is watching the SSO perform in any venue, let alone Sydney’s largest theatre.

The show began with an overture; a tease at the images and music we’d be enjoying across the following two hours. Narrator Eric Bana emerged after this to introduce the first sequence, before scurrying backstage and then returning at its end to do it all over again. If you’d expected Bana’s voice to be leading us through the series while the orchestra played, as David Attenborough did in the series, you would have thankfully been mistaken – there’s no doubt this would have taken away from the SSO’s performance. That said, the decision to have him running off and on stage before and after each segment felt like we were less at a production of some prestige, and more at an open mic night (“let’s give it up for the sloth for his stunning rendition of (insert song here)!”). It was an odd choice, but in spite of this, and the notable absence of Attenborough’s gravitas, Bana did a fine job in leading us through the series – not to mention adding a bit of star power to proceedings.

And ultimately, this was a night not about Bana (who channeled his love of sloths on behalf of the entire audience), but about the great score, performed dutifully and skilfully by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. And all this was ever the more enjoyable (even if distracting) while watching something of a greatest hits of the acclaimed series. The night ended with a look behind the scenes, accompanied by a reprise of the series’ theme, as the fans of the series – many of whom, it’s worth noting, were families – provided the Orchestra with a round of well earned applause.

The writer attended the 4th May performance of Planet Earth II: Live in Concert at Sydney’s ICC Theatre. This was the final date of the Australian season.