Saturday, November 2, 2019

Time for their closeups: ISO members get solo opportunities in 'Cinematic Symphony'

A fine example of the mastery that Jack Everly brings to pops programming at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is the way he connects what a symphony orchestra does to a wide swath of popular culture.

Jack Everly, the canny maestro of ISO Pops
Unfailing in his geniality and expertness as podium host, Everly on Friday night conducted the ISO in a Pops Series concert putting musicians in the spotlight as soloists for "Cinematic Symphony." The alliteration of the title is a handy reminder of the history of symphonic scoring as essential to the movie experience. In recent years, those textures have largely yielded to electronic scoring and pop songs. The symphonic bond dates from the "silents" era, when D.W. Griffith — a pioneer in this aspect as in so many others in the art of film-making — began the tradition of commissioning musical scores to accompany films.

It's a shame this practice, which became indelible once moving pictures found their voice, is associated with "The Birth of a Nation," a Griffith masterpiece that defended the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The close-up, though not a Griffiths invention, was something else popularized in his movies, including this silent epic whose sympathetic view of the defeated South goes well beyond "Gone With the Wind."

Mark Ortwein soloing in John Williams' "Escapades: Reflections"
Musical closeups spotlighting ISO members provide the theme of "Cinematic Symphony," which will be repeated at Hilbert Circle Theatre tonight. The selections, some of them in fresh arrangements, bring to the fore both hummable and musically intricate melodies that convey another function of music in movies: emotional highlighting. "The music sets the mood for what your eye sees; it guides your emotions; it is the emotional framework for visual pictures," Griffith once said, according to an illuminating article in American Heritage.

Sometimes, it can even stand on its own, as it is asked to do in these concerts. Besides, music designed from the start for concerts has long been brought into movies, such as "Nimrod" from Elgar's "Enigma Variations" used in the war-and-rescue drama  "Dunkirk." Everly inserted this soothing episode Friday night as a memorial to the late ISO music director, Raymond Leppard (who was also an occasional film composer).

When heard independently, film music has riches you may be only dimly aware of in the theater.  In these concerts, for example, you can enjoy the smooth phrasing, sustained through a climactic crescendo and diminuendo, that bass trombonist Riley Giampaolo brought to Ennio Morricone's love theme from "Cinema Paradiso." And the emotional framework that Griffith found essential holds up away from its visual context when such selections are so well-chosen and well-played.

Yet context is something a skilled composer can suggest without trying to approximate music from the film's era, as Everly explained in introducing a love theme from Miklos Rozsa's score to "Ben Hur." Associate concertmaster Philip Palermo played it eloquently, with the accompaniment sounding vaguely Middle Eastern and the tune delicately decorated with arabesques.

And something of the mystery and identity shifts of the hero in "Catch Me If You Can" was caught  by Mark Ortwein's involving and involved saxophone solo, "Escapades: Reflections."  Principal cellist Austin Huntington displayed a warm, intimate sound with sensitive dynamic variety in Sayuri's Theme from "Memoirs of a Geisha."

The concert got off to a gleaming start with the prominence of first trumpeter Conrad Jones, outlining the menace and majesty of Nino Rota's score to "The Godfather." Jones did his first solo in a side balcony, then moved down to the stage to pace a bit thoughtfully between solo episodes full of dramatic portent (Waltz and Love Theme).

Its juxtaposition with the first of several orchestra selections included without a spotlighted soloist was well-judged, speaking to the infinite variety of movie entertainment. It was a rambunctious arrangement of "Comedy Tonight" (Stephen Sondheim) from  "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." The percussion section cut up farcically, and the closing measures were topped by a quote from  the end of "Til Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks." It was a subtle reminder that the last laugh is usually a prelude to something not so funny.

A couple of duets presented different aspects of musical partnership. In Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe"  (from "The Mission"), the poignancy was tenderly divided between principal oboist Jennifer Christen and her section's associate principal, Roger Roe, playing English horn. A mock rivalry, with a host of apt stage action, was set up as Sherry Hong, violin, and Yu Jin, principal viola, played John Williams' adaptation for "Scent of a Woman" of an old Carlos Gardel tune. The performance had a number of droll virtuosic touches tending to suggest a reigning competitiveness between the soloists.

In truth, the only competitiveness music exercises in this arena is perhaps with the medium of film itself. There has always been a tussle between music as the film world's hired musicians think of it and what directors and producers want to use it for. As thoughtful as his endorsement of movie music was, Griffith also said, after an argument with a music director who struck him as too purist, "If I ever kill anyone, it won't be an actor, but a musician."

Perish the thought! Unlike the discarded movie diva in "Sunset Boulevard," the ISO musicians were truly ready for their closeups, not clinging to sepia delusions of grandeur a la Norma Desmond.




[Concert photo by Austin Money, from Mark Ortwein's Facebook page]




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