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Monday, September 21, 2015

Concert Review: A Hook and an Uppercut

The New York Philharmonic plays On The Waterfront.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Give him the hook: Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.
Photo © 1954 Columbia Pictures. 
In the history of the New York Philharmonic, no conductor is more revered or loved than Leonard Bernstein, the Massachusetts-born composer who held the post of music director from 1958-1969. On Friday night at the soon-to-be-renamed Avery Fisher Hall, the Philharmonic kicked off this year's series celebrating film music with Bernstein's lone film score: On The Waterfront.

Set on the Hoboken docks in the 1950s and based on a true story Waterfront is the tale of Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) an ex-prizefighter whose career was destroyed after he took a dive and lost a fight at Madison Square Garden. Now he's a dockworker, and in the opening scene he inadvertently acts as the accessory to murder of his friend Joey Doyle. Caught between the dead man's sister (Eva-Marie Saint, in her film debut) the local parish priest (Karl Malden) and the head-busting local crime boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), he struggles to find a way through this urban jungle.

Waterfront was made by Elia Kazan, a brilliant director whose reputation was tarred after he agreed to testify before HUAC (the House Unamerican Activities Commission) on suspicion of being a Communist. Kazan's film, shot on location in stark and gorgeous black-and-white, was shown here in a gorgeous, restored print and introduced by Philharmonic board member Alec Baldwin and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.

Bernstein was revered as a creator of musicals and opera, but ths was the only film score that he wrote which was not connected to a musical. The score is from his middle period, offering a distinctive, mournful horn theme, sweet woodwind melodies for the romantic interludes between Terry Malloy and Edie Doyle  and pounding rhythms that accompany the violent episodes in the score. The wedding scene allowed the orchestra to also flex its jazz chops, accompanying the dancing and romancing between the leads in this early scene.
Watch the trailer for On the Waterfront here and then do yourself a favor and see the film.

The orchestra played the score under the baton of David Newman, with the Academy Award-winning film screened overhead. The film was presented in two sections, with an intermission about halfway through. This allowed the house sound technicians a chance to fix the balance between orchestra and dialogue. Because of the film's sound mix and the volume of the music in certain sequences it was sometimes difficult to hear the actors.

As the plot of the film becomes more and more complex, Bernstein's score shifts moods, from the relative urban peace of Terry's roof-top pigeon coop to the gritty docks, where death awaits any longshoreman who doesn't keep to the unstated policy of "dee and dee" ("deaf and dumb") when the cops come asking questions. Terry's world collapses when he is confronted by his brother, the one who arranged for him to throw the fight and who ruined his boxing career. In this famous scene, Brando laments that "I coulda been a contender," one of the most famous speeches in cinema.

The climax of On the Waterfront is built on a series of epic confrontations between Terry and Johnny  after Terry's brother Charley (Rod Stieger) has been murdered. The near-brawl in a barroom, the music-less trial scene and the dockside finale, which climaxes in a fight and a beating climaxed with thundering brass, pounding timpani and that lonely, tragic horn theme. Bernstein's music here is equally uplifting, supporting the walk of a badly beaten Marlon Brando as he leads the workers back to their duties. Here, it was the orchestra that emerged as the champions, delivered with power, finesse and obvious affection for their late leader's music.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.