The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) has developed a new way to experience a film. On a fairly regular basis, it screens a movie with the BSO playing the orchestral soundtrack score live.
These performances are done for several showings, divided between the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and the Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda. The most recent show featured Peter Shaffer’s film “Amadeus,” on Jan. 4, and the event was breathtaking. The synchronization of conductor Nicholas Hersh’s musical direction with the events on the screen was impeccable, and the piano portions performed live by pianist Lura Johnson were equally meticulous and brilliant.
The film, which focused on the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, won an Oscar for Best Picture of the Year in 1984. The BSO’s live performance of the film’s soundtrack allowed viewers to experience the film in a significantly new way; indeed, the sound of hearing the score played by a live symphonic orchestra was alone worth the price of admission.
While performances of Mozart pieces such as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and his operas are mainstays, it is extremely unusual to hear live performances of works by Mozart’s rival and nemesis, Antonio Salieri, in close proximity.
Salieri was a highly successful composer and cultural icon during his and Mozart’s time, but he is now somewhat obscure, and his works are seen as paragons of mediocrity. Shaffer’s stage play (performed recently at the Folger) and the later award-winning film are based on a story told in a work of Russian literary great Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin imagined that Salieri, though popular in his day, actually recognized his inferiority as a composer next to Mozart’s.
Overtime, Salieri’s jealousy grew into a rage, stoked by Mozart’s seemingly effortless talent, along with his foppish, lustful and dissolute personality. This jealousy supposedly resulted in Salieri resorting to cunning methods of sabotaging Mozart’s career, resulting in poverty and ultimately contributing to the great composer’s death.
The program notes state that the “‘Amadeus’ soundtrack album (featured) a generous and extremely well-chosen selection of Mozart’s music, including symphonies, operas, piano concertos, chamber music and – most powerful of all – extended portions of the ‘Requiem.’”
The “Requiem” mass, the tortured composition of which supposedly caused Mozart’s death at the age of 35 through overwork, was brilliantly enhanced by the voices of the BSO Symphonic Chorale. The chorale also performed some of the choral parts of Mozart’s operas sampled in the film. It also made a bit of the music of Salieri as well.
The live chorale worked well to reveal how much of the second half of the film is devoted to the “Requiem” and emphasized the point that Salieri, if not a brilliant composer, at least had a broad range of compositional styles. Another advantage to seeing a live performance was witnessing the orchestra’s masterful performances of and shifts between vastly different works by Mozart, creating a new approach to hearing his music – a sort of remix, as it were.
The film itself, of course, is also engaging in its own right. Much of the film features a playful portrayal of Mozart. Still, there is also psychological drama and even tragedy, as the great composer encounters increasing financial hardship, especially as Salieri exploits the death of Mozart’s father in unexpected ways to affect his rival composer adversely. For example, Salieri realizes that the sinister costume in “Don Giovanni” represents to Mozart: his deceased father, Leopold Mozart.
As the film showed the Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” is performed after the death of Mozart’s father, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Symphonic Chorale performed a relatively long excerpt from the opera. At this point, the BSO might have provided something which that the film generally does not show: English-language subtitles to the Italian-language “Don Giovanni.”
It would have allowed the audience an opportunity to understand more fully how the words of the work would have impacted Mozart, rather than depending solely on the film’s visuals and setting. (The segment was filmed live at Prague’s Estates “Count Nostitz” Theatre, where “Don Giovanni” first premiered.) A “movie with orchestra” concert is always an opportunity to do something a little more with a film, and seeing both the historic setting as well as the English-language text might have been a means to expand the experience of the performance while remaining essentially loyal to the film.
Audiences wishing to experience future BSO “movie with orchestra” events should know that where one sits may significantly influence how one perceives the show. In seats near the front row, there is a greater cinematic experience with outstanding “live” acoustics.
In balcony seats and those towards the back, however, the apparent screen size is smaller, though with a broader view of the orchestra. The experience may be more of a BSO orchestral concert supplemented with a video.
Tickets to one of these excellent productions should thus be ordered according to one’s desired experience.