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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Concert Review: The Tale of the Broken Wand

The NJSO continues its Harry Potter project.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Dueling lessons: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter (with Kenneth Branagh, right) in a scene
from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. HARRY POTTER characters, names and related indicia are © & ™ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. J.K. ROWLING`S WIZARDING WORLD™ J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Publishing Rights © JKR. (s17)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the second installment in the eight-film Warner Brothers film series chronicling the adventures and education of a certain young wizard is the longest and most immersive movie in the series. On Saturday, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra offered two performances of the complete score concurrent with a screening of the film at NJPAC. Once more, stately Prudential Hall was filled with Potter fans, who seemed (sadly) more interested in the film onscreen than the orchestra playing the score.

Secrets is the second of three films scored by John Williams. Perhaps it was because Mr. Williams was caught between working on Star Wars and Catch Me if You Can, but this score is the composer on autopilot, recycling a number of familiar themes from the first installment and only adding a few episodes for low, minor-key brass and slithering strings, most notable in the movie's final sequence.

Harry is in his second year here, and at the center of a controversy. Something is attacking students at Hogwarts, leaving mysterious, bloody messages on the walls and water all over the castle floor. Harry is briefly thought to be responsible but it's not long before it's time to go off and solve the mystery with the help of trusty sidekicks Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson). The three young actors remain underdeveloped here, and the kids around them (most notably Matthew Lewis' Neville Longbottom) have yet to find their personalities. (That would happen in the third and fourth movies, which were made by much better directors.)

Fresher music would have helped this movie. It runs nearly three hours (the longest in the franchise) and delves deep into life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, without the darkness and body count that characterize the later installments. (In this one, victims of the monster in the titular chamber are paralyzed, not killed, and (almost) everyone recovers fully from their experience.) In some ways it is the most faithful movie in the series to J.K. Rowling's books, following the second volume (of the same title). That's it's greatest strength and greatest weakness.

The biggest problem with Steve Kloves' script is that it eliminates much of the screwball humor in an attempt to replicate the huge financial success of the first film. Gone are sequences like the Deathday Party (commemorating the near-execution of Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, AKA Nearly Headless Nick) and the scene where Professor Lockhard (the otherwise hilarious Kenneth Branagh) unleashes singing dwarves in the Great Hall as a bizarre Valentine's Day party. Ahh Hogwarts. Instead we get more long pans of the castle and an endless Quidditch match.

Turning from the endless set pieces in this movie to the music, there are some good things here. The introduction of the full Weasley clan is a highlight, as is the music generated for the extensive flashback generated by a secret diary with time-travel powers. However, the score plods through the first of the big monster reveals, and it feels in many passages that Mr. Williams (aided by conductor-arranger William Ross) is stuck, like much of the action in this book, in the girl's lavatory.

That said, the moribund nature of the material did not prevent the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (under the baton of Joshua Green) from playing the score with professional care (if not exactly enthusiasm.) There is a good deal of heavy lifting for the brass here, and the section responded with a powerful, burly performance. However, their subscription season at NJPAC will provide a better indication of the skills of this orchestra. If you like what you heard here, you should go see this fine ensemble play something more inspired. If not, come back in March for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

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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.