Friday, October 30, 2015

Franken-Watch: Frankenstein (1931) with the Univ. of Texas Wind Ensemble

I don't think it's a secret that Frankenstein (1931) is one of my favorite movies.  For the past 15 years or so, I've watched the movie about annually, and definitely for the last decade that's been true.

For a long time, The University of Texas music department has found Halloween-related activities to put on, and for years one of the faculty would play the organ along with the Chaney-starring Phantom of the Opera, but I never managed to see it.  About a month ago, I figured out that this year, Frankenstein was showing at the Bass Concert Hall, the big theater where travelling Broadway shows often set up camp in Austin.

If you know the movie, you know it's from early in the sound era, and there simply isn't a score under the movie.  After the initial credits, there's no music other than that of villagers playing music for festivities on screen.  The silence actually adds to the ethereal, otherworldly quality of the movie, I'd argue - but it also provides a unique opportunity for modern film goers and musicians.

Around 2001, composer Michael Shapiro was commissioned by the Film Society of Lincoln Center to compose a new score for the film, and this year, my alma mater (and employer) set the University of Texas Wind Ensemble to play the score along with the movie under the baton of conductor Jerry F. Junkin.

I won't pretend to know a lot about music, but I went with pal JuanD, who is a musician, and he gave the music the thumbs-up, so I shall, too.

With as many times as I've seen this movie, and I find new things to enjoy every time, the added layer of the live performance was absolutely spectacular.  The UT Wind Ensemble is a pretty serious deal.  This isn't some bunch of kids squawking away on instruments.  They may not have the years of experience of your local symphony, but they are getting world-class instruction and conducting, and their performance of the work was seamless with the film.

The score didn't reference the work of Franz Waxman, for good or ill, nor any other pieces that I'm aware of.  Here's a sample of the overture to give you an idea of the sound.  

There were hundreds of people in attendance, a costume contest (an adorable little girl dressed as The Grim Reaper won the kids' contest and a student who'd painted herself green and said she was Frankenstein won the adults' contest.  The guy sitting next to me in a purple pimp suit won second place for adults).  They also played Toccata and Fugue in d minor (because; Halloween) and The Sorcerer's Apprentice prior to the show.

I'm not going to review Frankenstein itself, because I have nothing but good things to say about the movie, and we can talk about it some other time.  In fact, I should really do a complete breakdown of the movie sometime.  Not today.

I will say I have always liked the silence in Frankenstein.  So it puts a different spin on the movie altogether when you're given emotional cues as to how you're supposed to feel versus the echo-chamber ambiguity in which you'd normally see the film.  But with the music, there was a greater sweep to some of the scenes, and the audience seemed to go along well with some of the more dated portions and artifacts within the movie thanks to the movie carrying them along.

Weirdly, the audience didn't seem to understand that the Baron is a comedic character.  Juan and I were the only people I heard laughing.

Oh, and there were tons of kids.  The little boy seated in front of me was totally into the movie, and that warmed the cockles of my monster-y heart.

Well done, UT Wind Ensemble.  You guys knocked it out of the park.

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