Cinema—even the greatest cinema—depends on great music for its effectiveness. Across recent seasons, the Dallas Chamber Symphony, while expending most of its efforts on the presentation of traditional concerts of classical works for small orchestra, has built a unique profile for itself by also presenting live accompaniment of newly composed scores for classic silent films.
Tuesday night, the orchestra and its music director Richard McKay joined the Dallas VideoFest film festival to present one of the all-time masterpieces of cinema, Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis, with a new score by Austin-based composer Brian Satterwhite. The evening at Dallas Performance Hall doubled as opening night for the film festival and as the opening concert of the orchestra’s four-concert 2015-16 subscription series; a dance ensemble from SMU also collaborated in the production.
Satterwhite’s score succeeded wonderfully as an enhancement of a film that is, 88 years after its creation, still chillingly effective. A science fiction parable of conflict between labor and capital, complete with a robot, a futuristic city-scape, catacombs, mob scenes, a burning-at-the-stake, a brothel scene, a Romeo-and-Juliet romance, and a flood in which masses of children nearly drown, Metropolis offers plenty of opportunity for vivid musical interpretation. Always logical but never predictable, Satterwhite responded with an orchestra of twelve musicians (basically a string quartet with piano, percussion, and winds), and took a generally lyrical, tonal approach (in a style reminiscent of Poulenc). This approach was enlivened with constantly imaginative, always skillfully crafted orchestrations, producing more unique and ear-catching sounds than one might have thought possible from so small an ensemble. Most impressive of all, Satterwhite knew exactly when to understate, and even when to take a counter-intuitive approach—as, for instance, during the flood scene, in which almost lyrical music accompanies the near demise of the workers’ children.
Conductor McKay and the orchestra navigated the complexities of the score (and of coordinating live music with film) beautifully, playing for the first sold-out house in the young ensemble’s history. The projection of the film, in an 82-minute-long version produced in 1984 by Giorgio Moroder (several slightly longer versions have emerged in intervening years), was generally clean and visually appealing, though several of the title cards were too dark to read. Lang’s influence on generations of film-makers is clearly evident, most obviously in the epic visual sweep and the imaginative special effects, which, while primitive by today’s standards, are still entrancing.
The addition of a dance ensemble was the one questionable point of the evening: Lang’s incredible visual imagery simply needs no enhancement or expansion. The choreography was superb, as were the dancers, but their presence on the stage, competing with the magnificent images by one of the great geniuses of cinema, was at best distracting and at worst irritating.