For years, I've been getting intriguing emails from Wordless Music detailing their different projects, which always include a few concerts where they accompany a film screening with a live performance of the soundtrack. This has become a popular sideline for the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras as well, creating a new (read: younger) audience for some graying institutions.
I was there back in 1981 when Abel Gance's monumental silent film Napoleon was restored and shown at Radio City Music Hall with a live score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola. It was shattering and intense experience, and set a very high bar for this sort of thing. More recently, we went to see Frankenstein at the United Palace Theater with an improvised soundtrack played by guitarist Gary Lucas, an event that was suboptimal in nearly every way. It was bad enough to make me a little gun shy. Partly for that reason, while I'm often attracted to Wordless Music's concepts, they tend to hover just below the line where interest becomes commitment.
But when they announced Barry Lyndon with a live score, there was no question we would have to go. I was lucky enough to see Stanley Kubrick's masterful period piece when it opened (yes, again at Radio City Music Hall) and I was immediately enraptured. Since I was only 10 or 11, there were certainly nuances I missed, but I was enthralled by Kubrick's evocation of a slightly alien past filled with all-too-human characters. Years later, I showed it to my wife and her reaction was identical. We also became obsessed with the music, some of which I tracked down piecemeal, as the Oscar-winning soundtrack was out of print at the dawn of the CD era (it is once again, but you can listen on YouTube or buy a used copy). I finally found it on vinyl and we were able to enjoy all the music as it was assembled by Leonard Rosenman for the film. It became a soundtrack to our own lives for a while.
As this was our first Wordless Music experience, we were confronted by sticker shock: they charge top dollar ($70 - $100) for tickets. Nevertheless, we took the plunge and reserved seats. Saturday night found us driving out to Flatbush where the beautifully restored King's Theater is located. We were coming from a family gathering on Long Island, which is why we used our car for what was literally a trip down memory lane. We found Flatbush to be the same riotous neighborhood it was when we lived there over 20 years ago, still pulsing to the beat of blaring dancehall reggae and busy with street vendors, and we felt at home even though it had been a long time.
The municipal parking lot described in the email from Wordless Music was either closed or beyond my ken, but we lucked into a space on the street. While circling we had noticed an IHOP, which suited our mood more than the jerk chicken or Dominican cuisine that can be found on every corner. The cavernous and seemingly brand new restaurant was nearly empty so service was fast and breakfast for dinner was as delicious as ever.
As instructed, we got to the King's Theater nearly an hour early. There was a line down the block - but that was for ticket pickup and I had ours on my iPhone so we went right in (it's like EZ Pass: why doesn't everyone do it?). The website having prepared us for a security checkpoint of nearly airport-level stringency, we emptied our pockets and walked through the scanner before taking in the stunning scale and detail of the restored theater.
There was an excited hum in the lobby as people availed themselves of the many bars scattered around, which sold not only top-shelf liquor but candy and high-end snacks, including wrap sandwiches that would have been handy if we hadn't had time for dinner. We made our way to our seats, assisted by the helpful ushers, and sat down. The theater space was exactly what the lobby promised, with whimsical caryatids and elaborate gilded decor.
The little program book was well-printed and designed, with gorgeous stills from the movie and some background information. I noted many familiar names in the orchestra and realized that Wordless was working with some of the best musicians in the city. I read the whole thing cover to cover while my wife Googled historical information on the theater, which originally opened in 1929. Before we knew it, it was 8:30 and the film hadn't started yet. The natives were getting restless, clapping in their seats, until there was an announcement around 8:45 that went something like this: "Welcome to the historic King's Theater. Due to unprecedented demand at the box office, we have to delay the start of our show as everyone gets to their seats. Please be patient." I will be more respectful of your time and say no more - except to call "bullshit" and note that the movie started a over an hour late, which is a little cruel considering it's three and a half hours long.
As soon as Ryan McAdams, the conductor, raised his baton, I blew any annoyance away and let myself luxuriate in Kubrick's exquisite vision of Thackeray's novel. Hearing the opening chords of Handel's Saraband helped, of course, as did seeing the spectacular digital projection of the remastered film. Seeing Barry Lyndon this far removed from when it was made brought home the remarkable restraint practiced by Kubrick and his production designer, Ken Adam, which kept them from making a movie that just looked like the 1970's. The candle-lit cinematography by John Alcott is second-to-none and adds intimacy to even the grandest interior shots. Ulla-Britt Söderlund and Milena Canonero, the costumers, are also to be commended for not going all Yves St. Laurent on the 18th century. They got a hearty round of applause at the end but I was the only person who clapped for Adam - like any James Bond fan, I know that he was one of the best ever at his craft. Alcott, Adam, Söderlund and Canonero all won Oscars for their incredible work.
The performance of the music was similarly flawless and perfectly cued to the projection (the dialogue, however, was only 99.5% in sync - another minor quibble). While Rosenman's work on the soundtrack was remarkable, I would venture to say that 40 years of evolution in the performance style of 18th century music was only to the benefit of Kubrick's conception, with a dryer, less ornamental approach enhancing Thackeray's gimlet-eyed but compassionate view of Redmond Barry's triumphs and travails. The piano trio (Timo Andres, Pauline Kim Harris, and Clarice Jensen) deserves special mention - I would love to hear them perform all of Schubert's Opus 100. The Irish folk musicians jumped into the traditional music, originally played by The Chieftains, fearlessly and with both feet, and tenor Nils Neubert's vocal turn in Paisello's Cavatina was a small wonder.
The event further proved that Barry Lyndon is one of the greatest films of all time. It is the platonic ideal for how to adapt a novel with a strong narrative voice, an Olympus that is seldom scaled and never summited, and, even with the slight mishaps, Wordless Music did it proud service. I really can't say enough good things about it - it must be seen to be believed, preferably on a big screen. So, I will gladly remain on Wordless Music's mailing list and hope that next time the whole experience is as finely calibrated as the magnificent musical performance.
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"It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now."
-William Makepeace Thackeray
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