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Boston Globe Feature Article

Boston Secession knows the score when it comes to Cocteau’s Orpheus

By Mark Feeney
March 10, 2006

SOMERVILLE -- So where do the musicians and singers go? The main auditorium at the Somerville Theatre is empty now. But when it's full, where do you put a chorus of 25, a string quartet, a lutenist, and a conductor? And don't forget, the singers play percussion, too, which means they need extra space. A question like that doesn't usually confront Jane Ring Frank, the artistic director of Boston Secession. But right now the music group is getting ready to accompany Jean Cocteau's classic film ''Orpheus" with a new score at the theater. There are three performances: tonight at 8, and tomorrow at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

''Orpheus" is the fifth film Boston Secession has come up with a new score for and accompanied during the decade since its founding. Others have been ''Wings of Desire," ''The Blue Angel," ''The Seventh Seal," and ''Like Water for Chocolate." ''Often I find that what makes for great classic cinema doesn't make for great cinema in this context," Frank says. ''It always comes back to the same things: strong imagery, strong characters, and, not plot per se, but a strong narrative arc."

Cocteau's retelling of the Orpheus myth, in which a young musician enters the underworld to rescue his dead beloved, certainly qualifies on all counts. Released in 1950, ''Orpheus" has some of the most stunning imagery in film history: from motorcycle-riding minions of death to mirrors as portals to the underworld and the quite-otherworldly beauty of Jean Marais as Orpheus.

Conducting a performance like this, Frank says, is much harder than a regular concert. ''It's very complex," she says. ''What I try to do is work from image and character. In a film like this, narrative is oblique. So the trick is piecing together a score that's cohesive, complementary, and beautiful in its own right."

Singing is harder, too. ''It's a different experience entirely, acoustically and physically," says tenor Bradford Gleim. ''All the music has to be synched up exactly with the film. That requires great discipline and attention, on both the conductor's part and ours. Our eyes need to be on the bouncing ball at all times."

The process begins two years in advance. Ring and Boston Secession repertory adviser Robert Fink draw up a list of possible films and start looking at DVDs. ''If we find something," Ring says, ''we just start brainstorming music that comes to mind as we watch. Then we sit on those thoughts for a while, come back to them, and see what works. If something doesn't fit, we plug that hole with something else. I'm also very conscious of using silence. We don't have continuous music. It would be overwhelming without silence. The longest stretch in 'Orpheus' without any music from us is nine minutes."

The score Boston Secession will be using includes excerpts from composers familiar to any regular concertgoer: Faure, Monteverdi, Handel, Arvo Part, Poulenc, Philip Glass, Mozart, Ravel, Gluck, and Stravinsky.

There's also one selection from a composer primarily known for his film scores (Glass has done a good deal of film work, but that's only a sideline). ''I threw in a Michel Legrand pop theme," Frank says. ''Orpheus is running around in a circle -- so, of course, 'The Windmills of Your Mind,' from 'The Thomas Crown Affair.' I think Legrand is a great composer, and it had a fun pertinence to the narrative."

Frank, 45, grew up in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. She started playing piano as a child -- ''obsessively," she adds. She studied music at California State University at Long Beach and later joined the faculty there. She came east in 1991 to conduct at Harvard.

In addition to her Boston Secession duties, Frank teaches at Emerson College, is a resident scholar at Brandeis University, is music director at First Congregational Church in Winchester, and conducts the 50-women chorus Concord Madrigals. She's also married and has an 18-year-old stepdaughter. Asked when she sleeps, Frank cheerily replies, ''I don't." The film accompaniments have proved very popular for Boston Secession, drawing big crowds and considerable attention. The temptation is great to make them an annual affair, Frank says, but it's not necessarily a good idea.

''I think doing a film a year is overly ambitious for us," she says. ''If we do it every two or three years, we have the time to do it right. In the off year, as our big project, we do a CD."

Still, with her two-year lead time, Frank has already begun thinking about a follow-up to ''Orpheus." She's tempted by the German Expressionist classic ''The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," though she acknowledges being leery of silent film. ''I try to stay with films that blend dialogue and music. Also, I'm a very big fan of what the Alloy Orchestra has done with scoring silent films, so I wouldn't want to compete with them."

Other candidates include Kurosawa's ''Rashomon" (''My interest is to use four different styles of music to coordinate with the four different points of view"), Zhang Yimou's ''Raise the Red Lantern," and either Fellini's ''La Strada" or Antonioni's ''L'Avventura."?The problem with the last two is logistical. ''These are massive projects," Frank says. ''The films are long -- hard to score."

Logistics count for a lot in these concerts. Conducting them, Frank says, is ''much more demanding than leading a regular concert." Those logistics extend to seating arrangements, too. So where exactly will Frank fit her singers and musicians in? Both the string quartet and lutenist are up onstage -- unless the latter feels too exposed, in which case he goes in front of the stage with the singers and Frank. The pianist is in the aisle.?

Boston Secession presents Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus" tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre. 617-499-4860, www.bostonsecession.org

Copyright Boston Globe 2006

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