SMP Ensemble plays Contag for “The Crowd”

Forty-second Wellington Film Festival 2013 presents:

The Crowd

Silent Film with live score performed by SMP Ensemble

Composer: Johannes Contag
SMP Ensemble conducted by Karlo Margetic

Paramount Theatre,  Courtenay Place, Wellington

Sunday 11 August 2013

This film dates from 1928 and is in the timeless tradition of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. It was written and directed by King Vidor, and the score was commissioned by Creative NZ from young Wellington composer Johannes Contag. The 12-piece SMP Ensemble comprised a handful of strings, flute, clarinets (including bass), bassoon, percussion and piano, a selection which gave Contag a varied colour palette to work with, and the tools he needed to support the wide sweep of settings, emotions and characters depicted in the film.

The composer comments of the film that “Despite being received very well at the time, its bold modernism and systemic cultural critique defy most Hollywood tropes. Already an enormously successful director, King Vidor had the rare privilege of flouting studio expectations, and consequently there’s not a single hero or villain to be found here. Instead, we are treated to an engaging dissection of everyday city life, one that refuses to succumb to the predictabilities of comedy and tragedy alike. What really makes The Crowd a delight to watch is its underlying love story……..It is in its astute depiction of the romantically mundane that The Crowd wins us over, making us care for the underdog despite his follies.”

King Vidor’s film is a poignant drama of a charming but all-too-fallible dreamer and the exasperated woman who loves him unconditionally and never gives up on him through thick and thin. The dramatic range of this screenplay presents an enormous challenge for the composer – almost two hours of non-stop music for scenes that encompass the dreamer’s gentle rural upbringing, the shock of a parent’s premature death, the heady thrill of setting off to seek his fortune in New York, the grinding reality of employment as a pen-pushing clerk in a vast office, then the romantic encounter that drives the remainder of the plot.

Each of these settings was sympathetically handled in Contag’s score, with the frenetic pace of New York life being perfectly captured in his Twenties-style ragtime idioms. The colour of the score more than compensated for the 35mm Black and White medium which seems so spare to modern viewers. The scoring for the courtship and honeymoon scenes trod a masterly knife edge between the extremes of lust and tenderness, with never a hint of predictable banality. The central part of the screenplay covers the mundane realities of daily work and commuting, and the monotony of suburban life for the stay-at-home wife and children. This called for essentially background music but, given that,  I nevertheless felt that Contag’s writing here was somewhat short on melodic, rhythmic and  tonal variety. It became rather pedestrian compared with the earlier score but, that said, his sense of drama was still keenly expressed in his very effective use of silence at key dramatic moments.

The latter part of the screenplay covers the increasing pressures on the marriage that result from the heartrending death of their daughter – a catastrophe which catapults the husband into a reckless decision to quit his pen-pushing job. Contag captured the poignancy of grief and crippling self doubt with great sympathy, together with the agonized indecision of a wife who still unswervingly loves her man, but has finally reached the end of her tether. When their fortunes finally seem to be recovering, the score sashays effortlessly into a conclusion filled with the brighter moods of optimism and hope.

Bouquets are due to the Film Archive and Creative NZ for putting their efforts and funding into this very successful collaboration between the composer, the Wellington Film Festival, and the local SMP Ensemble, who did such justice to the score. Together they made possible the only live performance of this year’s festival, and the fact that the house was sold out well in advance demonstrates the soundness of backing this endeavour. Hopefully this will be just one of many similar collaborations in the future.





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