6 August 2015 at 4.27pm | Comment on this article
The development of talkies temporarily endangered the livelihoods of cinema musicians – but live, improvised performance couldn’t be kept out of the cinema for long, and the silent cinema pianist now thrives the world over. Recent years have seen further developments to live cinema performance: live music is no longer made just for silent movies, but has moved into the realm of the soundtracked film. The genre of the cine-concert – in which a live orchestra performs a film’s score while the film is projected over the players’ heads, shorn of its music but dialogue and sound effects intact – is a genre rapidly on the rise.
The practice has its origins in one of the first great collaborations between composer and director. In 1987, André Previn and the LA Philharmonic performed a reconstruction of Prokofiev’s score to Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, while the film played overhead. Alexander Nevsky is a crucial early example of how central music can be to the character and intensity of the film, and Prokofiev and Eisenstein worked closely to make it that way. However, the low quality of the original recorded soundtrack obscures this relationship – making Nevsky an early and ideal candidate for live performance.
Films with soundtracks that draw on existing orchestral repertory are a gift to cine-concert organizers. David Lean’s Brief Encounter is riven through with Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, so much so that the film is often credited with the work’s enduring popularity. The London Philharmonic Orchestra preceded their live concert showings of Brief Encounter at the Royal Festival Hall with a performance of the concerto in its more traditional concert format, allowing audience members to hear for themselves the relationship between Rachmaninoff’s original and Lean’s adaptation.
The real market for the cine-concert has proved to be famous films with great soundtracks. Producer John Goberman, part of the team that brought Alexander Nevsky to the stage in 1987, has gone on to do the same for The Wizard of Oz (with a score re-created by John Wilson), Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain, Psycho, Vertigo and others. Ensembles such as CineConcerts and the Cinematic Sinfonia have been founded specially to perform live versions of blockbusters, including Gladiator, The Godfather, Star Trek and Back to the Future. Films such as The Artist, West Side Story, The Lord of the Rings and Titanic are regularly cine-concert candidates in performances around the world.
That said, live cinema performance is not just for the mainstream. The Royal Festival Hall hosted a live performance of Mica Levi’s acclaimed score for Under the Skin just months after the film’s release; Jonny Greenwood and the London Contemporary Orchestra have performed his score for There Will Be Blood (with Greenwood on the ondes Martenot) at numerous venues. The cine-concert is here to stay – what will you see next?
Casablanca: Live, performed by the Cinematic Sinfonia, runs at the Royal Opera House 7–8 August 2015. Tickets are still available.