[News-Press] Symphonic screen shots
The latest Santa Barbara Symphony program steers into cinematic and Chaplin-esque terrain
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
Taking a detour from its conventional programming path, the Santa Barbara Symphony made a filmic turn with its latest program, last weekend at The Granada. It could have been an unofficial pre-opening event for the big Santa Barbara International Film Festival that sweeps into town this week. In the main attraction position of the Symphony's concert was a screening, that being Charlie Chaplin's complete "City Lights," with a live— and very fine— orchestra in the onstage "pit," with a few film-related shorter pieces before intermission, accentuating the symphony-film connection.
Under the circumstances, we couldn't help reflect on other peripheral film angles involved. Those would include the performance's site, a former movie palace dating back to the silent era of the 1920s, and the current-day fact that many of this orchestra's members also make part of their living in the day trade of session work for films we know, love (and otherwise). We have literally heard musicians from our orchestra more than we know, in living rooms and theaters— and computers everywhere.
Guest conductor Dirk Brossé, from Ghent, Belgium, proved well-suited to the cine-musical task, as a film music fan and composer whose work has included film scores. In what must have been a first for a Santa Barbara Symphony concert, the program opened with music for a video game, but the hearty stuff of young composer Austin Wintory's "Apotheosis," from the game "Journey." A pleasantly moody piece, with fleeting Celtic flavors, the music went down easily enough in the concert hall. Maybe too easily.
Next, Mr. Brossé led the orchestra in a suite from the score for the film "Camille Claudel" by Gabriel Yared, who has also composed concert music. There was a tinge of irony in the fact that a film composer with concert composer aspirations was represented in the concert hall by his movie work. But that didn't detract too much from the sad, surging emotionality of Mr. Yared's work here, which, interestingly, resembles the slow movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 5, famously used in the film "Death in Venice."
To further confuse the film-meets-music line, Mr. Brossé's own work on the program, "Black, White and In Between," for Violin and String Orchestra, decidedly bears some cinematic music airs and melodic logic. Impressive violinist Jessica Guideri, the new concertmaster of the Symphony, acquitted herself wonderfully in the lead role on the three-part, one-movement piece, through a short sighing cadenza to the fast finish, urged on by rapid five-note phrases.
Chaplin was a remarkable poly-talent and multiple threat, as writer-director-comedian, whose post-silent film career unfortunately sagged, but was always a passionate music fan and also songwriter ("Smile" being his "greatest hit"). Reportedly, his score for his masterpiece "City Lights" was hummed and/or pecked out on piano, transcribed and turned into scores for piano and variously sized ensembles. The Santa Barbara Symphony's full orchestra version, which we guess Chaplin would have adored, was arranged by Carl Davis in 2002.
We've experienced live orchestral Chaplin before in the area, in the form of the David Robertson-conducted score to "Modern Times" at the 2008 Ojai Music Festival. But somehow, the Granada setting seemed ideal for the convergence of mediums.
It is perhaps a slightly back-handed compliment to report that the Symphony's live handiwork was bold and understated enough to fulfill the ultimate role of film music— to support, enhance and occasionally illuminate what's on screen. Chaplin's music is simple and tuneful, and subtly colors the masterful brilliance of this great, never-a-dull-moment film, with its virtuosic-timed slapstick, physical comedy, and Chaplin-esque poignancy in the margins. We had the comfort of knowing and feeling the live orchestra's presence, which, by some twisted mediumistic logic, made itself disappear, despite the presence of a multitude of live humans onstage.
Let the film games continue, beginning Tuesday night at the Arlington.