Film and accompaniment define synergy

Musical interpretation of 1920s silent movie heightens intensity

November 18, 1999|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anyone who was in the capacity audience at the regional premiere of Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light" and Carl Dreyer's silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," was fortunate. We shared a moving experience at the superb performance given by J. Ernest Green and the Annapolis Chorale, with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and soloists.

Together, the film and the music define synergism, with the music underscoring and intensifying the film. As in opera, the music and drama fit, with the words perfectly matching the music.

There are many layers of meaning in Einhorn's music that recall the era of Joan of Arc, with the authentic sound of the church bell of Domremy, Joan's birthplace, recorded by the composer and incorporated into the score. Einhorn studied multilingual motets, which he used with simultaneous layers of text, a medieval idea that Einhorn reminds us "is also modern." All of the words are sung in the ancient languages heard in Joan's time.

Einhorn's music is highly dramatic, heartfelt with romantic elements as well as atonal passages where violins are played sulponticello, near the bridge, to produce an agitated sound. The music is very accessible for contemporary classical music, full of feeling, reaching and touching the audience, as music should. Dissonance is used for expressive purposes.

Einhorn knows how to evoke emotions, and although his milieu was film music, "Voices of Light" is much more, at the very least equal to what is portrayed on the screen.

Well beyond the usual concert experience, this music requires the audience to make an emotional investment, but Einhorn's work is not difficult to understand. It is far more difficult to perform, demanding huge effort on the part of soloists, chorus and musicians.

For the performance Saturday at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, the chorale had few guidelines and teachers to help them pronounce the ancient languages.

Einhorn's work demands much of the conductor, who must have courage, total confidence in his musicians and respect for the audience. The music must be perfectly matched to the rhythm of the film and emotionally matched to the intensity of the drama. In addition to his superb musicianship, Green has all of those needed qualities in abundance.

Green also has a clear vision of where he wants to take the chorale, which has become "better and richer over the last several seasons and needs to go beyond what it did." Dedicated to new music, Green understands that the concert hall is changing and "we're at a different place now, and music needs to be something vibrant and alive," he said in an interview.

A unique experience is derived when two senses are simultaneously touched, evoking heightened feelings. The music makes the 70-year-old silent film current, the visual art depicting good and evil with simple truth, expanded and intensified by what we hear, making it mind-blowing or an ecstatic religious experience.

The Annapolis Chorale's uniquely full sound was augmented to produce a layered richness that was enormously moving. Before the film appeared on the screen, the chorus sang a haunting melody a capella that moved us back in time, with the music swelling dramatically as the screen credits appeared.

The section "Victory at Orleans" grew brighter with an instrumental vivacity in sharp contrast to the later interrogation music. Here a male chorus accusingly sings "Homasse" -- "Masculine woman" in a cruel, fortissimo sexist taunt that is minimalist in style, and well-suited to the accusatory theme.

In contrast, the next section -- "The Jailers" -- has a humorous operatic quality reminiscent of Puccini's "La Boheme" where a joking male recitative precedes Mimi's final entrance. This is followed by the "Pater Noster" ("Lord's Prayer") with a mournful cello and female voices representing a prayerful Joan, in touch with her God.

Other sections express Joan's torture in a combination of film music and Christian oratorio. The "Anima" section is ethereal and ecstatic. "The Final Walk" is dramatically powerful with its Domremy church bell sounding as Joan exits prison and begins her walk to the scaffold. "The Burning" frighteningly echoes the flames we see on the screen. And finally the "Fire of the Dove" conveys the realization that a saint has been burned, followed by the epilogue repeating Joan's letter that "God wills it and so it is revealed by the Maid."

Saturday, each soloist was nearly perfect -- sopranos Amy Cofield and Carolene Winter, tenor Jeffrey Halili and baritone Scott Root. Instrumental soloists, too, could not have been better -- Paula McCarthy's violin solo during the scene when Joan's hair was cut was poignantly heart-rending. In their accompaniment of soprano Amy Cofield, cellists Melissa Cada and Eric Stolzfus touched the soul.

It is a pity that this magnificent concert could not have been presented more than once last weekend, especially considering all the work that went into it. Green hopes to repeat it next season.

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