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ENCHANTED EVENING: Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies

RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES is a new concert event in which iconic moments from the great Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals are screened in front of world class symphonies providing live orchestral accompaniment.  In May, R&H Concert Library Manager Michael Vannoni traveled to Chicago to see -- and hear -- the CSO’s SRO performance. Here is his report:

Upon entering Orchestra Hall at Chicago’s Symphony Center, one is immediately enraptured by the ethereal and ornate architecture of the space, which was renovated magnificently in the mid‑1990s.  During my recent visit to this great hall, I too felt this sensation and began to feel how great this space was going to be for the evening’s elegant affair – a celebration of Hollywood’s take on the music and lyrics of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II – the musical films of Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

As one makes their way to their seat they begin to notice other aspects of the evening – most notable are the performing ensemble, the world‑class Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the large movie screen suspended just above the Symphony.  Shortly after my acknowledgement of the empty canvas hung by seemingly invisible threads over the woodwind section of the orchestra, I found my seat and began to notice other things throughout the hall. 

I noticed one of the violinists warming up on a passage from the wild and thrilling “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” dance sequence (yes, the film orchestrations for the dance sequence – rarely heard live!).  I also noticed a full house!  Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, with a capacity exceeding 2,500 seats was near, if not at, capacity!  This was a true testament to the popularity of the Chicago Symphony and to the entrancing and heartwarming nature of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon.

I then began to scrutinize the generously laid‑out program book which included a 5‑page spread of program notes authored by The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization’s own Bert Fink and accompanied by quite decent-sized black and white copies of the posters for each film represented at the performance (OKLAHOMA!, CAROUSEL, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I, STATE FAIR and THE SOUND OF MUSIC). 

As the hall lights dimmed, the audience buzz lowered in kind...and up came the stage lights on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  At lightning speed, the smiling and genuine maestro Emil de Cou came out from stage right with an energy that commanded the audience’s attention.  After a quick bow to acknowledge the audience, we were off and running. 

The evening began with excerpts from the film OKLAHOMA!  From the very first string and brass notes of theOKLAHOMA!Main Title” (the silver screen’s version of the Broadway overture), the Chicago audience was transported south and west to a land bursting with “plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope” (a feeling outstandingly accomplished by the 20th century’s ingenious orchestrator Robert Russell Bennett).  Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestral colors helped create the R&H sound and can be heard in the full theatre orchestrations of OKLAHOMA!, SOUTH PACIFIC, FLOWER DRUM SONG and THE SOUND OF MUSIC, just to name a few.  The film renditions of the teasing “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” scene, and the raucous full cast scene featuring the title number “Oklahoma” were also explored and one got the feeling that the lead actors in the film (Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones) were right there in the concert hall with them.  Synchronizing an orchestra with film can be challenging but this portion of the evening was expertly and gracefully executed by maestro de Cou and the Chicago Symphony. 

The next film that was represented at this evening’s performance was CAROUSEL.  From the very beginning of “The Carousel Waltz,” we were transported to the relentlessly spinning world of two star-crossed lovers, Billy and Julie.  The shy and cautious “If I Loved You” sequence (featuring again, Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones) was next and demonstrated why -- whether on stage or screen -- this is one of the most beautiful love scenes ever crafted. 

Next, as the sun rose we saw the fishermen and ladies of New England enjoying the late spring weather as they sang out and danced to “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.”   In this performance, the maestro and symphony had a ball playing this dervish of an excerpt and had a super keen sense of timing and coordination as the film vocals got fewer and fewer and the orchestral notes got more and more.  This moment in the performance was truly thrilling for all (and probably even more exciting for those who have ever been in front of a click track in a Hollywood recording studio).  “June...” was an uplifting and heart‑pumping end to the CAROUSEL sequence.

The themes of love and war are no strangers to musical theatre.  In SOUTH PACIFIC we find Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and Emile de Beque (Rossano Brazzi), two people “born on the opposite sides of a sea” and drawn together by the need to find consolation in a world that many say is over.  The film’s main themes of struggles with societal differences and prejudices as well as universal passions and interests are foreshadowed in the shrill and acidic opening notes of the “Main Title.”  Where the “OKLAHOMA! Main Title” helps to establish a sense of promise and possibility for American pioneers, the “SOUTH PACIFIC Main Title” sets up almost immediately a sense of great tension and unease for all, regardless of nationality.  The famous ensemble numbers in this film, like “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” help to dissipate the angst and frustrations of these people stranded in the south Pacific, and show that regardless of where one may be, certain feelings just seem to remain omnipresent. 
       
Between each set of film clips maestro Emil de Cou spoke succinctly, lovingly and warmly about each film.  Each brief monologue was used to segue effectively and gracefully from one film to the next.  De Cou’s passion for the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein was apparent this evening.

The second half of the program, which started with THE KING AND I, brought us into the Royal Palace of the 19th Century King of Siam (Yul Brynner) where we (and Mrs. Anna, played by Deborah Kerr) are introduced to the king’s many children (“The March of the Siamese Children”).  After the processional has taken place, the children, the King’s wives and Mrs. Anna sing “Getting to Know You,” a moment where we find the value of love and understanding, both pervasive themes for Rodgers and Hammerstein.  “Shall We Dance?,” another excerpt with lots for the orchestra to do, gave the Chicago Symphony a chance to play robustly and jubilantly on this lively polka.

STATE FAIR was R&H’s only musical created originally for the big screen.  In fact, two films of STATE FAIR were created before it became a stage musical in 1996.  Starring Jeanne Crain and Dick Haymes (1945 film) and Ann‑Margret and Pat Boone (1962), STATE FAIR is the story of the Frake family who search for love and blue ribbons and the Iowa State Fair.  “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” “Our State Fair” and “It Might as Well Be Spring” are among the most beloved titles from this joyful, humorous jaunt of a film.

One of the greatest moments in any R&H film is the “Prologue” and the title song from the multiple Academy Award winning classic, THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  In Chicago Symphony’s performance, we were given an opportunity to hear, with clarity only available to a live audience, the delicate first sounds of the film.  These chromatic woodwind scales are evocative of the opening of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” with its fragmented and angular themes thrown around the woodwind section.  Of course, both titles begin a crescendo and in R&H’s film we are drawn by this crescendo into the world of Maria Rainer ‑ later Maria von Trapp (Julie Andrews) who sings “The Sound of Music,” one of the most beloved songs in the R&H repertoire.  After we are introduced to Maria and her childhood world, we are swept briskly into the Main Title, orchestrated by Irwin Kostal, with luscious trumpet sounds and folkish oboe and clarinet sounds.  Schmaltzy string writing is legal tender in this film and is rampant in Kostal’s orchestration.  The Chicago Symphony played these notes with style and poise.         

Maestro de Cou and the Symphony performed each of the excerpts from these five movie musicals with high professionalism and musical style.  Notable was the brass section, with its velvet, even and characteristic tones.  Maestro de Cou’s energy could not be depleted as he turned the orchestra on a dime where and when necessary.  It was clear to me during this performance that it’s no wonder why the Chicago Symphony was recently ranked one of the best orchestras in the world.  Bravi tutti!   

We know that Rodgers and Hammerstein were a perfect combination; so too are the vivid film sequences and lush, live orchestral accompaniments that together form RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES.

Upcoming dates for RODGERS & HAMMERSTEIN AT THE MOVIES include Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl (September 6); Tokyo Philharmonic (September 20); Sarasota Symphony (January 23, 2010); Grand Rapids Symphony (March 12-14); San Antonio Symphony (Majestic Theater); and New Jersey Symphony (May 15).  Stay tuned for further updates from rnh.com.

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