Wednesday September 12 2018 – While not the official start to the new season, the New York Philharmonic had its first concert in David Geffen Hall since the start of the summer as part of its The Art of the Score series. In it, they project a film on a large screen in the hall while the orchestra plays the full soundtrack. If you can, I would highly recommend going to tonight or Saturday to hear 2001: A Space Odyssey as the performance I saw of Paul Anderson’s modern classic There Will Be Blood (2008) was spectacular. The performance was led by the effusive conductor Hugh Brunt. It was interesting to see the crowd who shows up to this film events – the crowd was far younger than some of the other audiences I’ve seen in this hall. It was nice to see a different audience exposed to the same excellent music, hopefully the NY Phil can draw in these same people at concerts later in the year after hearing this evening’s performance.
Above: Conductor Hugh Brunt
Johnny Greenwood (best known for being a member of the band Radiohead) created the score for There Will Be Blood. The film is about an oilman named Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day Lewis) at the start of the 20th century, in his quest to create an oil empire. It is a dusty film that sees the rise of industrialization in California – the movie starts in the uninhabited desert with nothing around and ends after the stock market crash of 1929 in a giant mansion with talk of Hollywood. Mr. Greenwood, captures the look and feel of each of these pieces of scenery, along with the intense action on screen.
The first ten or so minutes of the film or so has no dialogue – just Mr. Greenwood’s haunting score accompanying Daniel Plainview trying to strike oil. The score follows every shot of film – the haunting microtonal strings slide up as the camera tracks through the desert. As oil seeps up, the score moves with it, ever rising. As Daniel digs more into the shaft, the score perpetually moves down – matching his movement digging for oil. Here Mr. Brunt led the strings of the Philharmonic in a vigorous, subtle reading. The score was deathly quiet, but with each shift in tonality full of color and clear. The players for their part seemed fully engaged, those who were not playing looking at the film through the entirety of the movie. It was visceral to watch and listen. Mr. Brunt also managed to capture the openness of the score. During the second orchestral interlude, there are Copland-esque movements of fifths that creating a sound that mimics the large undeveloped space.
This sort of sound painting is used again in the final scenes to illustrate a different world – instead of open orchestral sounds of infinite desert you have the sounds of a Debussy/Messiaen kind of piano quintet. Perfect for a grandiloquent house that also is now firmly in the modern era – and reminiscent of the scoring Mr. Greenwood uses in the Paul Anderson film of this year Phantom Thread. Here, the orchestra sounded rich and dense, layered with a late romantic colouring. They managed to highlight the unstable, almost drunk nature of the score, which mimics how Daniel Plainview is acting in this scene.
One of the best performances of the night was during a scene early on in the movie in which Daniel Plainview is starting to bring industry to the town in which has procured oil fields. There is an almost frenetic energy in the score (in a section marked “Future Markets”). As the railroad brings in more people, materials, and Daniel is buying up more land the score strings play a hefty accented theme. This is then augmented with intense pizzicato and playing. Here the orchestra sounded alive and energized. Even in the slower, more ominous section of this movement – every note was crystalline In “Proven Lands”, the orchestra got the almost spunky, rock element of the score – seeming to enjoy the percussive guitar-like pizzicato and intense Bartok-pizzicato.
Above: Composer Johnny Greenwood; Photo Credit: Jason Evans
Another highlight was when Principal Cellist Carter Brey played a section of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres in one of the more dramatic parts of the film. In some versions of Fratres (there are many different arrangements) it sounds much more soft-spoken, but Mr. Brey managed to use a rough sound that worked in conjunction with the dark and dusty looking parts of the film. He matched his sound to the onscreen action, which was incredibly creative. Assistant Concertmaster Michelle Kim also did a fantastic job in her two moments playing the celebratory last movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto – once blessing the opening of the well and the other after the disturbing end of the film (used as irony). She had a slower, almost busty sound that made the concerto seem more folksy.
All in all, hearing such a great orchestra with an incredibly film like that is well worthwhile. While perhaps at times it got in the way of the film, in many other instances it just enhanced the film in every way – especially a film like this where there isn’t all that much overlap between the score and dialogue. It was a nice way to start the season and if you can try to make it out the performances tonight and tomorrow.