Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 22
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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Westminster Community Orchestra’s Audience Goes on Musical Journey Through the Movies

Nancy Plum

Music from film and television is often dismissed as trivial or fluff, when in fact notable composers in the early 20th century considered writing film scores a very viable way of making a living. Such composers as Aaron Copland and Sergei Prokofiev wrote for film, and many other major works of music by significant composers have been used in movie soundtracks. The Westminster Community Orchestra brought a bit of fun trivia and a great deal of this film music to the stage on Saturday night. Conductor Ruth Ochs took the audience at Richardson Auditorium on a trip through the unusual and little explored world of music from the movies, as concertgoers learned a new thing or two about pieces they thought they had known for years.

When people think of classical music and film combined, Walt Disney’s Fantasia immediately comes to mind, and this landmark film is where the Westminster Community Orchestra began its survey. In the 1930s, Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Leopold Stokowski made an historic arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor, which was subsequently used to open Fantasia. Although the Community Orchestra strings certainly cannot be compared with the 1930’s Philadelphia Orchestra “sound” in lushness and musical opulence, the Community Orchestra clearly enjoyed the chance to play full out, with the lower strings having particularly good tuning. Four flutes provided a nicely unified sound, and Dr. Ochs handled the tempo transition between the Prelude and Fugue well.

Gustav Mahler probably would have been appalled to know that his music was used in film, but his Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 was seen by director Luschino Visconti to be perfect for his 1971 film Death in Venice. The Adagietto began with a quiet viola and a very clean harp (played by Michaela Shaw). Like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, the string lines in Mahler’s Adagietto were continuous, and the violins of the Community Orchestra maintained minimal vibrato in their long lines. Dr. Ochs kept the piece moving via intensity, with the ending to the work nicely tapered.

Like the other two movies referenced in the first half of the concert, The Red Pony (for which Aaron Copland wrote the score) was a movie Saturday night’s audience had probably seen. Copland composed the score to the 1949 film and subsequently recombined the music into an orchestra film suite. Although the winds of the Community Orchestra were a bit strident at the beginning of the six-movement suite, the Copland-esque broad orchestral strokes came through well, with nicely balanced pairs of flutes and clarinets. A solo oboe played by Helen Ackley provided typical Copland lightness, and Dr. Ochs maintained precision within the ensemble.

Opera composer Richard Wagner also may not have liked to have had his music used for film, but when one writes a piece such as the “Ride of the Valkyries” (from his 1856 opera Die Valküre) one has to expect that the music would be used for other creative purposes. “Ride of the Valkyries” has been used in a number of films, not the least of which was a film cartoon with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. This “Ride” is always fun to listen to, and the Community Orchestra kept the drama moving with clean brass and a steady tempo.

Equally as lush and broad was Richard Rodgers’ Victory at Sea score, composed in 1952 for an NBC television series. Rodgers’ suite captured an upbeat armed forces feeling of the 1940s, and the orchestra built the musical intensity well, especially in the latter movements of the piece. The closing works of the concert were from more contemporary films, including Schindler’s List, Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean. Violinist Brian Ranes played the theme from Schindler’s List with thoughtfulness, accompanied by a subtle keyboard played by Michael’s Jacobsen. The orchestra called on unusual percussive effects in Hans Zimmer’s music from Gladiator, and the selections from Pirates of the Caribbean were among the most well-played music of the evening.

An audience certainly would never have heard this combination of pieces together were it not for their common denominator of film, and the orchestra made a fun evening out of it by providing a survey contest testing knowledge of movies and music. This is a genre which is rarely explored in depth, but which offers equally as intriguing mysteries as the music of the great masters.

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