Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review: John Paul's 'City Girl' Score wows at Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival

The James Ivory Theater at Marylhurst University was full to capacity Friday night, May 8, for a special presentation of the Oregon Sesquicentennial Film Festival. The film was famed director F.W. Murnau's 1930 silent opus City Girl, accompanied by a brand-new original score by composer John Paul, head of Marylhurst's music department. Paul directed clarinettist Barbara Heilmair Tanret, violinist Julie Coleman, violist Joël Belgique and cellist Justin Kagan.

The film tells the story of beautiful Kate, a tough, hard-working Chicagoan who works at a bustling lunch counter constantly patronized by a horde of leering, demanding goons, and Lem, a naive Minnesota farm boy who is sent to the city by his father with the all-important task of selling the family's wheat crop for that year. Subsequently they fall in love and get married, much to Lem's family's chagrin, and Kate follows Lem back to the wheatfields of Minnesota (actually filmed in 1928 outside Athena in Eastern Oregon) trying to gain acceptance from Lem's family and adjust to life on the farm.

Murnau originally wanted to call this film 'Our Daily Bread,' so in honor (it would seem) of the director's vision Paul entitled the prelude 'Give Us This Day.' The prelude and score for the title screen reminded one of Copland's rendering of Americana: stately and dignified, the music painted visions of the heartland with broad brushstrokes, harmonically uncluttered and straightforward, complementing rather than competing with Murnau's pastoral cinematography.

Paul's composition showed a wide range of textural variation throughout; having only four instrumentalists, he made maximum use of the many timbres available to these skilled players. There were light-hearted moments, such as the moto perpetuo theme depicting a train ride to the city. There were strange pizzicato motifs tossed about between the strings, bearing uncertain tonal relationships to the underlying texture; this represented the Farm Board, and young Lem's attempt to sell the wheat for the price his father demanded. There was true pathos in Paul's scoring of the family's benediction--we never hear the words of the prayer, but both the film and the score leave no doubt as to the dire consequences should Lem fail in his task.

Kate's workplace occupies a large part of the early film, and Paul used a spiky, mechanistic leitmotif driven by the clarinet (an instrument often used for Kate herself) to depict the hustle and bustle of the lunch counter. A menacing, sawing cello theme represented Lem's angry, glowering father, who is very, almost violently suspicious of his new daughter-in-law. Frightening, fortissimo chord sequences accompanied the confrontations between Lem's father and Kate, Lem and his father, and also heralded the arrival of a hailstorm that threatens to ruin the crop before it can be harvested; Paul used these moments judiciously, and therefore to a heightened emotional effect.

The mechanics of conducting this type of presentation seemed daunting. Paul was constantly looking between the screen, the score, and the players, and for the most part everything was synchronized amazingly well, given the difficult logistical nature of the undertaking. In the moments when things didn't quite align, Paul called out bar numbers and, aside from one or two instances, the players segued to the appropriate measure seamlessly. All of the musicians deserve high praise for the skill and subtlety of their delivery. It seemed as though everyone shared a similar vision, from an artistic and a technical standpoint, and great dexterity was required to pull this off.

Before the show Paul informed the audience that during the days before 'talkies,' a pianist or organist would often improvise and/or play various well-known classics or pop-tunes to fit the film. In homage to that, Paul mentioned in the program notes that Berg, Weill, Bartok and Copland (I also fancied (much to my delight)that I heard tiny snippets of Danny Elfmanesque harmonic progressions) were all inspirations for his composition.

The audience went wild afterward: foot-stomping, whistling, cheering, clapping and a hearty chorus of huzzahs greeted the composer after the lights came back on. All in all the entire project was a fascinating and worthwhile experience. Murnau's film was incredibly powerful, the actors (especially Mary Duncan as Kate) were intense, so Paul had his work cut out for him. To his credit, he embraced the melodrama of the film rather than using his composition to critique it: in no way did the 'soundtrack' betray self-aggrandizement on the part of the composer, but rather it showed a deference to Murnau's artistic vision.

1 comment:

Jim said...

I was at that event and found it totally enthralling.

Kudos to John Paul for a herculean undertaking and pulling off the feat with such aplomb.