Over the last several weeks, the Concordia Orchestra has been preparing for the challenge
Since Mary Shelley first published her Gothic horror novel in 1818, “Frankenstein” has been read by millions. The classic tale of an overly ambitious scientist who ‘plays God’ by creating new life, and the tragedy that results when he doesn’t take responsibility for his creation, have inspired generations of readers and writers.
Arguably just as influential in the cinematic world is the 1931 Universal Studios adaptation. Though some may question its faithfulness to the source material, the film “Frankenstein” has indelibly created a place for itself in popular culture with its image of the lumbering monstrosity with bolts protruding from its neck, played by Boris Karloff.
Surprisingly enough, despite the immortal place Universal Studios’ “Frankenstein” has secured in the canon of American film and the fact it was a talkie, it is missing something that many moviegoers take for granted: a soundtrack.
Other than music during the opening and closing credits and some music from an in-scene polka band at one point, there is no score. They did not have the technology at the time to add a second sound track.
It is just as surprising that it took almost seventy years since the premier of the film for someone to take up the task of composing music.
In 2001, over the course of six weeks, American composer Michael Shapiro stepped up to the task of composing what the film “Frankenstein” had missed for so long.
A prolific composer as well as the music composer and director for the New York-based Chappaqua Orchestra, Shapiro is also a huge fan of the early Universal Studios horror films.
After the opening of an adjunct theater near the Lincoln Center Film Society, Shapiro felt compelled to forge a collaboration between the theatre and his own ensemble. Since then, his “Frankenstein: The Movie Score” has had over thirty productions. The piece comes in three different orchestrations: a wind ensemble, a chamber orchestra of about twenty-five musicians, and a full orchestra of seventy-five.
On the evening of Tuesday, October 17th, Shapiro’s piece will be making its premiere in Fargo at -- where else -- the Fargo Theatre. “I’m thrilled to perform at the Fargo Theatre, which has an orchestra pit and is a classic movie palace, built only a few years before Frankenstein premiered in 1931. Perhaps it even played in the Fargo Theatre then.”
Shapiro himself will be arriving on Monday the 16th, in order to conduct the orchestra through the rehearsal, before he conducts the live show the next night.
Which orchestra will be stepping up to the challenge of performing the piece? The Concordia Orchestra. Over the last several weeks their director of orchestral activities, German-American Kevin Sutterlin, who stepped into the role in the fall of 2016, has been preparing the orchestra for the challenge.
And it is quite a challenge, according to Sutterlin. “It’s difficult and tricky. There are a lot of rhythmic intricacies.” He noted that two things add to the difficulty of preparing for this already challenging piece. The first is that this is one of several projects that the Concordia Orchestra has to juggle during this season.
The other has to do with the technique of accompanying the film itself. Generally, when an orchestra scores a film, not only will they have the film projected on the big screen for the orchestra to have as a visual reference, but they often use one of several methods to know when to enter with musical accompaniment.
One, for example, is the click track, where a clicking sound will signal the entrance of the orchestra, who then begin playing along with the scene being scored.
Another is a monitor used by the conductor which will often display a red line on the film where he should give the cue to begin. The performance of “Frankenstein: The Movie Score” uses none.
Sutterlin pointed out that this grants some freedom to each conductor on how best to conduct the piece, and makes every performance truly unique.
But the combination of a number of rhythmic shifts and intricacies, along with the lack of any other cues than the film itself, create an interesting challenge for orchestras. He and the Concordia Orchestra are up to the task, however, as is the Fargo Theatre.
Sutterlin mentioned how excited he is about the opportunity to have the performance at the historic Fargo Theatre. “You can tell it’s not about the money, it’s about the experience, for the students and the audience.”
One might wonder what a new film score for “Frankenstein” adds to the experience of the original film, which went decades without a soundtrack. “It adds a lot,” said Sutterlin, who admitted he had not seen the film until recently. “It adds foreshadowing. It adds more schmaltz to romantic scenes. Sometimes it adds humor,” he said, pointing out a big orchestral hit that occurs when Igor jumps at a skeleton in a lab when he is looking for a brain to steal for the monster.
Shapiro said that, although the original film is creepy in itself, “It’s in great need of music to amplify and ‘scarify’ the movie.” He compared the piece to a highly dramatic one-act opera. “I hope the music will get under the listeners’ skin.”
IF YOU GO
Michael Shapiro, Concordia Orchestra: ‘Frankenstein’
Tuesday, October 17; doors 6:30pm, film 7:30
Fargo Theatre, 314 Broadway N, 701-239-8385
Tickets in person only at box office, $10, students $7
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