Through May 5, fans of Gershwin and classic film enjoyed “An American in Paris” at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, with live accompaniment by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

This film won Best Picture of the Year in the 1952 Academy Awards and featured a soundtrack composed by George Gershwin.

The combined film-showing and BSO concert provided a depth of musical experience beyond that possible from simply “streaming” the movie at home over the internet.

The reason is that the original soundtrack was recorded using monaural or monophonic technology, and not in high fidelity.  Watching the film with the soundtrack being performed with the expert accompaniment of the Baltimore Symphony provided an experience that was both more immediate and more powerful.

One example will illustrate this: in the film, there is a dream sequence in which co-star Oscar Levant plays and conducts Gershwin‘s surprisingly jarring and modernistic “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra.” Seeing this on DVD, Levant comes across simple as the wise-guy sidekick to Gene Kelly’s more serious, and more central, romantic lead; Levant’s character is simply an impractical bohemian daydreaming about performing.

Yet, the live musical experience in a symphony hall casts this in a completely different light: Levant’s original solo was heard rising above the live symphony orchestra, reminding us that Levant in real life was one of the great American concert pianists of the mid-century and a conductor as well!

Indeed, at times, he literally seemed to be conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as he imagines he is conducting a symphony orchestra within the movie.

Rather than merely being comic relief, this provided a moment of focus with a past master and a revelation that Gershwin’s music was not just popular music or even symphonic jazz, but rather avant-garde in its prophetic use of dissonance and atonalism. Other more popular Gershwin compositions featured included “Strike Up the Band,” “Embraceable You,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay” and “But Not For Me.”  Often set in nightclubs and parties, these scenes were also significantly enhanced with the full orchestral sound.

Another standout moment occurred late in the film with the 17-minute “American in Paris Ballet.” Here the full choreographic genius of Gene Kelly was shown. Vibrant colors in this restored version danced along with Kelly and leading lady Leslie Caron, who was discovered by Kelly and made her screen debut in this film.  Then-modern, as well as earlier Parisian fashions and traffic, flowed across the screen to sounds both melodic and brassy; re-created paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec also suddenly appeared on the set.

One minor criticism would be the program guide. Information about the film and the making of the film would have been helpful, perhaps along with a discussion of how these versions of Gershwin tunes are tailored MGM studio orchestra arrangements and differ from versions one might normally hear in a concert hall.

The playbill told only about the conductor, Jack Everly, who is the Principal Pops Conductor of the Indianapolis and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras.  Not that this was uninteresting: Maestro Everly is a vastly talented man: one can only look on in wonder at his ability to keep the orchestra in sync with a film recorded some 68 years ago, particularly as the rhythm must match in certain numbers every step of Kelly’s masterful and fast-tempo tap dancing!

“An America in Paris” with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra made for a fabulously entertaining evening, providing an authentic Gershwin concert by a symphony orchestra while bringing out aspects of classic film in ways one does not generally expect.

Fans of films accompanied by live orchestra will also want to learn about other upcoming shows. On July 5 and 6, audiences will have an opportunity to see the National Symphony Orchestra perform outdoors at Wolf Trap to a showing of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”  On June 13-16, music lovers can again hear the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as it performs Leonard Bernstein’s score of “West Side Story” with the film playing above with shows at Strathmore Music Center in North Bethesda and at Jacob Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore.

Interestingly, though a composer and conductor of note for the full symphony orchestra, Bernstein preferred the more intimate original stage version scoring for “West Side Story” over the larger orchestration used in the 1961 Academy Award-winning film, as he considered it over-arranged and “overbearing.”

Instead of simply imitating the movie soundtrack, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop will, therefore, play an orchestration closer to that of the stage original.  This version of “West Side Story” (re-mastered in high definition) is not to be missed, and it illustrates once again how seeing film masterpieces with a live orchestra can inspire us by offering fresh, vigorous impressions of the original films!

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