Boston TAB Feature Article
Boston Secession provides musical wings to Desire
by Gary Freeman
January 10, 2000
The classical music group the Boston Secession takes its name seriously. Just as you may sense a touch of anarchy in the name, you'll see a commitment to approaching music in a different way. A case in point is the group's revival of one of its most innovative programs.
On Jan. 15, the Boston Secession, a 3-year-young instrumental and vocal ensemble that takes music to places it's never been, performs music as a live accompaniment to Wim Wenders' 1987 film "Wings of Desire" at the Somerville Theatre.
"We want to bring music into a new light, especially contemporary music ... to give the audience a way in," says Boston Secession Artistic Director Jane Ring Frank, who, along with UCLA musicologist Robert Fink, chose the music for the performance. "[So] we like to use a number of multimedia techniques."
Wenders' film, set in a divided Berlin, gives hope to the human condition through the reasoning of angels.
"I love the film for many reasons," Frank says. "It really lends itself to our purpose and gave us wonderful clues and a background for music. Exactly a year ago we did [the same performance] at the Coolidge Corner Theater. There were two performances and both were sold out. We're repeating it because we've had so many requests from people who couldn't see it the first time. It's been one of those weird moments when everything worked together."
"Wings of Desire" won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival for its screenplay (by Peter Handke) and award-givers all over the world honored its black and white photography (by Henri Alekan). The movie isn't entirely in b&w, though. At the point when Daniel, an angel burdened with the decision of whether or not to turn in his wings and become human, is carried over the border into West Berlin by his angel comrade Cassiel, the film - in "Wizard of Oz" fashion - switches to color.
"There's certainly a political aspect of the film," Frank says. "It's a story about humanity in Berlin. Real urban de-personalization. [But in the end] we discover there's divinity in humanity when one of the angels appears to touch the whole panoply of emotions and wants to become one of us. [Wenders is saying] our whole mundane existence is really sacred."
The music for the film, Frank says, is an "aural montage" of bits and pieces of choral and instrumental music of Beethoven (the crazy, late op. 132 piano sonata when the film switches to color), Rossini, Bruckner and Saint Saens. Also included are strong representations of 20th-century masters such as Estonian composer Arvo Part, whose captivating religious choral music hits the radio airwaves at the time of major religious feasts, and John Adams, a well-known composer who turns well-known people, such as Richard Nixon and Leon Klinghoffer, into opera characters.
Frank, who's on the music faculty at Emerson, Brandeis and the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, sees this project as one of her greatest challenges. Working with each separate piece and movement of music is much more difficult than just coordinating the soundtrack of a movie, which is, more or less, one musical work. And each performance is with live musicians, unlike the movies, "so there's no place for improvisation," Frank observes.
"Truthfully, [this performance] is one of the most terrifying things I've ever done," she admits. "How to make each piece of music coordinate with the film took hundreds of hours. The sound engineer and I had to work together for months.
"In a way, it's been a spiritual mission," Frank adds. "We're bringing music to a level of intellectuality, [and at the same time] accessibility. This work has been my heart's desire."
The Boston Secession performs musical accompaniment to "Wings of Desire" at the Somerville Theatre, Somerville, on Jan. 15 at 7 & 9 p.m. Tickets are $14-$25. Call (617) 499-4860.