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.





Choral and orchestral extension of case law advocated by Wellington lawyers and jurists

Counsel in Concert: At the Movies

Music, mainly classical, from the films

Choir and orchestra of lawyers (with some NZSO and Vector Wellington Orchestra players in the orchestra), Deborah Wai Kapohe (soprano), Amanda Barclay, Jared Holt (baritone), John Beaglehole (tenor), Douglas Mews (keyboards), Kenneth Young (conductor)

St. Andrew’s on The Terrace

Tuesday, 23 October 2012, 12.15pm & 5.30pm

These lawyers worked to a brief of abbreviated (or should that be a-breve-iated?) musical works.  Some were very short excerpts, for example, the opening bars only of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, which opened the 45-minutes-long concert and gave Douglas Mews a little burst on the organ in the gallery, and the final item ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s 9th symphony, of which we heard only the final part of the chorus.  Most people will be familiar with these two movies (2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Clockwork Orange).  Despite its brevity, the Strauss was much more exciting in its impact, being live, than the recording of the full work heard on radio that very morning.

In between, there were several speeches, notably by concert organiser Merran Cooke, who besides being a lawyer is an oboist in the Vector Wellington Orchestra.  Other items from the choir were part of the ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem, Nella Fantasia by Ennio Morricone (arr. Snyder), from the film The Mission, with Deborah Wai Kapohe (choir and harp very attractive here), Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis (of Chariots of Fire fame), and, most notably, a work especially written for this occasion by orchestra member Aaron Lloydd: Fundamental Obligations of Lawyers.  This set words from section 4 of the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act 2006; an unusual text, indeed.  The choir made a good, strong sound in all its items, but sometimes was swamped by the brass in the resonant acoustic of the church.  The choral writing was somewhat plain, but effective – more like a chant – it was probably a necessary characteristic if the words were to be heard, which they were.  The orchestral writing was more interesting, with some lovely percussion effects – befitting for bandsman Lloydd.  There were, too, some delicious woodwind effects, with sounds which were evocative – but not of the law!

Then there was a fanfare – that used by 20th Century Fox for the introductory screen to its movies – this case was very quickly resolved, with plenty of clamour.  Its composer was Newman (Randy, I assume).  The theme from Mission: Impossible was another brief display.  This music was by Schifrin, arranged Custer.  One trusts that this and the Morricone arrangement were done  with due regard to copyright law.

The items for the soloists received less condensed renditions.  Deborah Wai Kapohe’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Gianni Schicchi, by Puccini to which the singer gave an excellent introduction, was utterly ravishing.  Orchestra and singer were both in fine form.

Jared Holt followed with ‘Largo al factotum’, the famous aria by Rossini, from The Barber of Seville.  Like Wai Kapohe, Holt has returned to a legal career in New Zealand after some years singing in opera overseas.  His Figaro was full of character and wit;

The third solo was ‘La Donna e Mobile’ from Rigoletto by Verdi, the third in a trio of very popular operatic arias.  John Beaglehole’s singing was very fine, if his voice was a little light for Verdi.  The orchestra played with spirit and accuracy.  His introduction and singing had the necessary sarcastic humour.

‘Pie Jesu’ from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem was sung most affectingly by Amanda Barclay and Deborah Wai Kapohe, though the style was somewhat too operatic for this simple piece.  Douglas Mews accompanied sympathetically on the baroque organ.  For the next item, the Vangelis, he played the piano.

Kenneth Young directed his counsel very well, particularly in view of the fact (of which we were informed) that he had taken on the case fairly recently, due to the previous conductor, Owen Clarke, moving to Auckland.

The concert was quite informal in the way the choir wandered on, chattering, and in its late start – perhaps a contrast with the court scene many of the participants are more accustomed to?

Tumultuous applause greeted every item, and the large audiences responded to a very good effort all round from the performers.  An irritant was the clicking of a camera upstairs during a number of the items, a phenomenon increasingly apparent in a variety of concerts recently.

Far from sticking to the letter of the law, the whole enterprise, and the performances, showed flair and originality.  Should we look for the chiropractors’ chorale, or the diplomatic dancers?