Did Hollywood pinch its best tunes from classical music, or does orchestral tradition owe a big debt to the movies?
It could be a First World conundrum, but also matched the theme of WA Symphony Orchestra’s Cinematic program at the Concert Hall on Friday.
From the portentous tones of 2001 and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathrustra, to a whimsical Nigel Westlake suite for the kids’ movie Paper Planes, to Erich Korngold’s Violin Concerto No.4, it was hard to unbundle the fate of film and orchestra over the decades.
Westlake’s Flying Dream opened with a delicate rustle of harp and bells in a scene of mystery spun out in piano, piccolo and flute, with brass weighing in to swell a sweeping theme; cinematic, even (hold that thought).
Conductor Ben Northey, a crowd favourite, kept the tone light and airy to fit the movie title in an ever-changing soundscape where no one voice held sway; perhaps fitting in an orchestra bolstered by guests and COVID reinforcements.
Chicken and egg, movie and classics? Korngold’s concerto had a bet each way, drawing on his immersion in movie music for his breakout to concert hall in post-war America.
Violinist Baiba Skride honoured the motif in a splash of technicolor with a crimson gown and richly romantic phrasing to channel the Golden Age — and just a hint of The Simpsons in the jarring “devil’s interval” of the beloved show tune.
Chicken and egg again?
Korngold beat the well-worn path of refugees from Vienna to LA in the 1930s, but here seemed to walk back towards the Romantic-era greats, adding a dash of popular pizzazz.
There was also a touch of modernism in a frenzied, angular cadenza that Skride pursued relentlessly into high harmonics before returning to earthy drama to close the Allegro nobile first stanza.
Sighing strings with harp highlights opened the second movement, Romance, then wholesome chords sustained a narrative solo line; perhaps a leitmotif for a matinee idol, elusive in the upper register.
Skride seemed to blossom in the mid-range before returning restlessly to harmonics; maintaining a touch-me-not distance from the tutti strings, woodwind and brass, musing mysteriously in meditation to close.
Hustle and bustle in solo and ensemble for the finale flipped the switch with a touch of humour in vamping chords, morphing to virtuosic flurries from Skride’s bow.
Hearty orchestral playing suggested you could take the boy out of Hollywood, but not Hollywood out of the boy; a bucolic timbre in sharp contrast to Skride’s will o’the whisp, elusively skimming across the top before plunging decisively in a vigorous climax.
After the interval, deep rumbling in the organ as always evoked awe in the Sunrise moment from Also Sprach Zarathrustra, trumpets rising ominously before the orchestra flared and timpani hammered home the glory of the universe; Northey’s grandiose gestures a work of art in themselves.
Were we hearing Nietzsche’s 19th century paean to superman (no, not that Superman), Strauss’s symphonic poem, or Kubrick’s Space Odyssey?
Whatever the answer, Kubrick faded as the work progressed through dark machinations in low brass and strings then horns, offset by lush melody in violin and viola and sustained cello and bass, waxing rhapsodic; underpinned by deeply harmonious organ chords as Daniel Schmitt’s viola sang a suave solo.
Morphing to melodrama in stentorian trumpets, surging strings set up stark contrast over timpani’s fateful rattle.
Switching again in chromatic glissando slurs across the orchestra, Rod McGrath’s solo cello descended to funereal mode in tutti cello and bass.
Bassoon followed in sombre fashion, echoed in clarinet, as latent turmoil resurfaced, unleashing syrupy strings.
Looping lines across the stage hardened resolutely to high drama in lavish flourishes and a sudden break.
Turmoil resumed then resolved in dance, a lavish waltz with rippling harp and robust rubato firmly in Northey’s grip and decisively played across strings under concertmaster Laurence Jackson’s lead.
At the last, triumphal phrases with trumpet fanfares and bells tolling faded over shimmering strings to an infinitesimal cadence.
Applause and ovations followed in a cinematic “you have been watching” sequence: soloists, sections, full orchestra — everyone.
Cinematic is repeated on Saturday, August 27, 7.30pm.
WASO returns to the Concert Hall with Beethoven and Prokofiev on September 2 and 3, 7.30pm.