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Live Cinema

11/17/1998 -  

Sadler's Wells
17 November 1998
Erich von Stroheim The Wedding March Carl Davis (arranger, conductor)
London Philharmonic Orchestra

23 November 1998
Philip Glass Koyaanisqatsi Live!
Michael Riesman (conductor)
Philip Glass Ensemble and Guests

The past week in London has seen two contrasting, but equally outstanding, performances of films with full-scale live music. The Wedding March with Carl Davies' Viennese-based score reveals the operatic grandeur and irony of the film in its awful glory. Koyaanisqatsi, a club zone-out with hippy associations in the cinema fifteen years ago, has an edge and freshness  when peformed live, even though it has been ripped off ubiquitously.

Stroheim's The Wedding March is set in 1914, three years after Rosenkavelier was written, and was made in 1928, the same year as Arabella, and also Der Dreisgroschenoper. It presents a view of the lost operetta world of Vienna, from the point of view of a cynical but ambitious hatter's son. Stroheim casts himself as Nicki, an aristocrat who falls for working-class Fay Wray, apparently seeing himself as an operetta hero. But he looks like Ochs all along, and ends up walking down the aisle with saintly, limping Zasu Pitts, daughter of a social-climbing merchant of corn-plasters. (Pitts is very moving, in spite of cliched decor and her reputation in comedy.) Nicki's gargoyle parents are apparently the result of a previous similar match.

Carl Davies' score is arranged from Viennese music of all kinds, a handful of familiar walzes, Wienerblut and The Blue Danube, but also Schubert's Aufenthalt for the sinister Iron Man (the figure on top of St Stephen's cathedral, who plays a symbolic role in the action as the embodiment of male aggression). Davis uses Mozart's Ave Verum and a traditional Catholic hymn for the elaborate Corpus Christi procession which, with superb nastiness and elaborate presentation, forms the climax and centre of the film. The wedding march from Lohengrin gets only a few allusive notes, over the titles, and at the end. Stroheim didn't get to complete the film, but it seems possible that he intended the glorious theme of its title not to appear, and to be overshadowed by the hypocritical pageant of Viennese tradition.

Whereas Davis and the London Philharmonic brilliantly bring out the meaning of the film as it was originally intended, and must have been understood by its audience, Philip Glass composed Koyaanisqatsi as an integral part of Godfrey Reggio's film. Glass' music stands alone as an archetypical, and typically architectural, big composition in eleven movements of increasing intensity and anxiety, all based on a single rhythmic shape and a limited range of melodic techniques, but building up textures and contrasts dramatically.  Pre-recorded, the music is a part of the mechanism implicit in the movement of the image (though more stable than anything on the screen).  Heard live with the film, it adds a slight element of sympathy to the beautiful but brutal images, of the desert, cities and people seen as moving geometric patterns going out of control.

The Philip Glass Ensemble (with Glass himself playing the trademark opening organ notes and pedal notes on the keyboard) gave an electrifying performance, although the musicians' need for lights on the stage in front of the screen meant that picture quality of the film was less than ideal. Sadler's Wells, in contrast, has a proper orchestra pit and impeccable projection.

H.E. Elsom



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