A unique orchestral-cinematic experience for players and spectators alike: Philomusica

Philo

ON SATURDAY 29th March, Philomusica, Aberystwyth’s very own symphony orchestra, returned to the Arts Centre to play a repertoire of film music in an evening of ‘Music at the Movies’. I couldn’t help but notice just how many people had turned up to watch the concert, not only the usual suspects but a whole slew of students (a demographic not typically associated with a deep-seated love of classical music). It’s quite likely that this exceptional turnout was due to the unorthodox nature of the programme, a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail with a live musical accompaniment. Before that, however, the audience had the first half of the concert to enjoy, featuring short arrangements from four iconic films; The Big Country, The Sea Hawk, Rebecca, and Lawrence of Arabia.

The Big Country

Jerome Moross’ title music from 1958 The Big Country was the best possible choice to start the concert with. The well-known theme is emblematic of the Western genre, beginning with a soaring strings and a rousing brass part that instantly puts your mind in the roaming flatlands of the American Old West. It is an exciting, bold piece, and to say that the orchestra did it justice would be a massive understatement.¬ I had chills down my spine at multiple points at hearing one of my favourite film themes being played live. Confidently performed and wisely chosen (Saturday’s arrangement was by Stanley Black), for me The Big Country was an absolute highlight.

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The Big Country

The Sea Hawk

Next, we heard the main theme from The Sea Hawk, the 1940 feature film starring Errol Flynn as a British privateer in the late sixteenth century. This piece starts with an exciting fanfare that is reminiscent of swashbucklers and adventures on the high seas, but the music changes mood quickly and often. From tender romantic phrases filled with flute trills and sustained strings to terrifying moments of suspense delivered by the strike of the tam-tam and piercing French horns, this seemed as eventful to listen to as it must have been to play.

Rebecca

Setting a slightly eerier tone, we then heard the suite from Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock’s premier Hollywood film. Chiming tubular bells, frenzied strings and an ominous brass section mark the beginning of the piece, before the orchestra settles into what is actually quite a light-hearted section, characterised by the parts for glockenspiel and flute. The strings and horns then come in, however, and Philomusica’s musicians did a fantastic job of reminding us just how creepy of a piece this actually is. At this point I feel compelled to give credit to our very own online editor Laura Say, for what was an exceptionally well-played solo on the alto flute. A suitably frenzied and furious ending definitely.

Lawrence of Arabia

Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Overture was the final short of the evening, starting off with a dangerously exposed timpani solo and subsequent outburst from the percussion section. It instantly grabbed my attention and held it. The orchestra does eventually settle into a phrase of sweeping strings that encourages your mind to wander to the Arabian setting of the film. Throughout these softer sections, the timpanist¬ occasionally comes back in with the same rhythm from before, which I thought was a nice touch and incredibly well-played on the night.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

All four of these shorts were played fantastically, really putting you ‘in the moment’, so to speak. However, this immersion was made much, much more real by slides of images from the four films being projected on to the large projector above the orchestra. Especially if audience members hadn’t seen all of the films before, these added a layer of context and meaning that was very welcome. The image sequence was selected by violinist Jonathan Eve.

Blackmail

After a brief interlude, we the audience found ourselves back in our seats, waiting with baited breath for the centrepiece of the evening. The score for Blackmail that was played on Saturday was not an original but actually a 2009 arrangement by Neil Brand for the Cinema Ritrovata festival in Bologna, Italy. It is the first piece of music to have been written specifically for Blackmail (80 years after its cinema release). The amazing and special thing about Saturday’s concert was the level of synchronisation required between the orchestra and the film, and conductor David Russell Hulme did a fabulous job of holding everything together. In his programme notes he writes of the level of flexibility that the musicians enjoy in parts of the film, of the “ebb and flow of the moment.” Other musical moments, however, have been especially composed to fit with exact moments. For example, when the triangle rings out cheekily to mark Detective Frank Webber kissing girlfriend Alice White, or a ringing telephone in what could be the most suspenseful moment of the film. Come to think of it, the percussionists must have had the most nerve-wrecking of evenings on Saturday; I don’t envy them but they certainly did a good job. As did the rest of the orchestra, of course, and the sustained applause at the end was well-deserved.

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A unique cinematic experience for players and spectators alike!