Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror Review

On a chilly evening on the eve of Halloween, scores of people made their way towards Symphony Hall in Boston for a truly spectacular event. F.W. Murnau’s classic horror movie Nosferatu (1922) would be projected on a gigantic screen that hung above the orchestra pit. A new score, created by eight Berklee College of Music students under the supervision of renown professor Sheldon Mirowitz, would be performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra and conducted by legendary Keith Lockhart. It was a magical evening full of fun Halloween costumes and incredible music.

The event started with an introduction by Berklee president Roger H. Brown. He told the audience that Berklee is the only college where you can major in film scoring for your undergraduate degree. The school has worked with the Coolidge Corner Theatre over their years for their Sound of Silents series. The students compose an original score for a silent movie and perform the music live in accompaniment with a screening of a film at theatre (see my review of their performance of Sunrise here). The school graduated into a new relationship with the Boston Pops Orchestra and Keih Lockhart.

If you're from Boston you are well acquainted with the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, something us locals look forward to every Independence Day. Whether your on the Esplanade watching it live or sitting at home watching it on TV, it's not an event to miss. Just watch this clip of the Boston Pops performing the 1812 Overture as fireworks light up the sky. It'll give you goosebumps.

Even thought I've lived in this state all of my life I have never seen the Boston Pops perform live nor have I been inside Symphony Hall. Before the event started, Carlos and I were craning our necks to take in the splendor of the hall's interior. It's an enormous space and according to the BSO's website, “Symphony Hall [is] the first auditorium designed in accordance with scientifically derived acoustical principles.” It's enormous but because of the way it was constructed the music fills the space.

After Brown's speech he introduced Sheldon Mirowitz, professor of film scoring at Berklee who has a long resume of TV and film scoring credits as well as three Emmy nominations. Mirowitz gave a very eloquent speech. He brought up the question: why do we need horror movies? His answer: we need to see our fear to better understand it. This is spot on and exactly why so many of us watch not only horror films but pretty much any film. They help us process reality.

After Mirowtiz's speech it was time for the show. The orchestra tuned up and conductor Keith Lockhart came out. I used to play in a school orchestra when I was much younger (second violin, hey!) so I love watching all of the rituals that go with orchestra performances.

I had high expectations for this event especially having been so moved by Berklee's performance of Sunrise (1927) back in 2010. The Symphony of Horror event did not disappoint.

The beautiful music filled up the massive hall and there was a dramatic moment in the middle that just blew me away. There were all sorts of sound effects to go with the action on screen. The rats crawling, the horse trotting over the fields, the drummer/messenger toward the end and pretty much any shot of Count Orlak was accompanied by some creepy music. The orchestra made good use of their percussion instruments!

There were two guest performers accompanying the Boston Pops. One was Rob Schwimmer who played the Theremin and Michael Bierylo who performed the Moog Synthesizer. The Theremin was the hit of the evening. We overheard several patrons talking about it or mimicking it’s trademark sound as we all exited the hall.

Symphony Hall capacity is 2,700 and the space was almost full. I estimate that there were about 2,500 people there for the event. This is by far the largest classic film event in size I've ever been too. The audience reaction was for the most part very good. We all applauded after each of the five acts, an extra applause for the wonderful dramatic moment in the middle and a standing ovation at the end. This is the longest continuous piece of music the Boston Pops has every performed and there was no intermission so I give them credit for their ability to keep us enthralled with their music. I would have liked more dramatic moments but the music has to match the film's pace and content.

Professor Mirowitz sat a few seats away for most of the piece and I noticed him looking around to take in the audience's reactions to the film and music.

Silent films are often an endurance test of an audience’s patience, suspension of disbelief and their attention. Not everyone could hack it and we did notice some people leaving before the film was over.  The couple sitting next to us grumbled most of the time and left half-way through. It's their loss.

Lots of folks attending the event got into the Halloween spirit and were wearing scary costumes. Even a couple of the ushers dressed up. The audience members ranged widely in age: little kids, teens and young adults all the way to older folks. The whole spectrum. And there were a lot of couples, Carlos and I included.

There is a long tradition of scoring Nosferatu (1922). Most of Hans Erdmann's original score for the film has been lost and the film itself only survives because of sheer luck. All original prints were destroyed because of a copyright dispute; the story is basically Dracula without calling itself Dracula. Copies were eventually found and Nosferatu eventually became the cult classic that it is today. Did Murnau ever think that this film would be presented in such a way almost 100 years after it was made?

I'd be remiss to not point out the excellent work done by the Berklee students who created the score for Nosferatu. Congratulations to Amit May Cohen, Matthew Morris, Elena Nezhelskaya, Emily Joseph, Hyunsoo Nam, Joy Ngiaw, Jungwan Han and Victor Hong! When the eight students took the stage at the end of the event the crowd erupted in applause.

Thank you to the BSO for inviting me to cover this event. Carlos and I had a blast!

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