Mozart’s musical rivalry is a cinematic extravaganza

30 August 2021

Perth Symphony Orchestra pull off a feat of precision and endurance with their live soundtrack performance of Amadeus, writes Claire Coleman.

Perth Symphony Orchestra presents Amadeus ·
Crown Theatre, 28 August 2021 ·

Let’s get one thing straight: coordinating live soundtrack performances to the films they accompany is tricky.

I confess, before attending Amadeus with Perth Symphony Orchestra and the Phillips Chorale, I had not thought too deeply on the mechanics. It quickly became apparent that conductor Craig Dalton had his work cut out for him.

Crown Theatre already has the visage of a supersized cinema, and that was its function here, with a projector screen suspended above the stage where the musicians gathered. Eschewing the usual camouflage of concert blacks, the orchestra instead kept with eighteenth century fashion, wearing rococo-style powdered wigs, stockings, breeches, ruffled shirts, and embroidered jackets. It was a charming touch that helped keep the live musicians in the limelight even once the film’s narrative started demanding audience attention.

A conductor in 18th century costume
Conductor Craig Dalton had his work cut out for him navigating the mechanics of a live soundtrack performance. Photo: Daniel Carson

Amadeus is Miloš Forman’s 1984 film adaptation of the 1979 stage play by Peter Shaffer, but its fictional story of vicious rivalry between Classical composers Mozart and Salieri is much older, dating back to Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1897 opera Mozart and Salieri, and before that to Alexander Pushkin’s 1830 play.

The film was highly successful at the box office, winning numerous awards, spawning a director’s cut in 2002, and remaining a critical favourite. Nevertheless, it asks a lot of its audience, clocking in at two hours 40 minutes and focusing on the petty squabbles of a group of extremely unlikeable characters. I personally find it a tedious watch, but the soundtrack is a delight and PSO executed its performance with agility.

The orchestra navigated wild transitions with ease, leaping between excerpts from Mozart’s operas Il Seraglio, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte, sections of the choral Requiem, and various instrumental works. A highlight was the film’s expressive finale: the “Romance” from Piano Concerto in D minor featuring pianist James Huntingford.

an onstage photo of orchestra musicians wearing 18th century costumes
The orchestra navigated the soundtrack’s wild transitions with ease. Photo: Daniel Carson

One small detractor from PSO’s general excellence was its amplification. Orchestras and choirs often flourish best in settings where the audience can enjoy the natural acoustic resonance and expert blend generated by the musicians themselves, rather than whatever patchy sonics the mics pick up. Since the feature of this event was its live soundtrack, it was a pity that some of the music’s emotional immediacy was lost through amplification. While amplification couldn’t be avoided in such a large space, there was certainly a trade off here between spectacle and expressiveness.

However technology was overall an integral element of the performance’s success. Taking cues from a screen above his score on the podium, Dalton had to coordinate the responses and reactions of a large group of humanly imprecise performers with an inflexible and immovable film recording.

With 52 musicians in the orchestra, plus the 45 strong Phillips Chorale, Dalton had a lot of people to wrangle, and he managed it while effectively concealed the complexity of what he was doing. Imagine the cognitive dissonance that would have crept in for the audience if the orchestra and singers visible on screen had been out of sync with what we were hearing! While there were a couple of brief moments of discrepancy post-intermission, these really served to highlight how good the synchronicity had been overall. PSO and concertmaster Paul Wright were responsive to Dalton’s adjustments in these moments, and recovery was so quick that the lapses were likely imperceptible to most viewers.

In its 10th year, PSO continues to innovate, offering Perth audiences new perspectives on what orchestras can do. I look forward to the surprises they’ll offer in years to come.

The next performance by the Perth Symphony Orchestra is The Snowman, 19 December 2021.

Pictured top: The Perth Symphony Orchestra in 18th century costume as they perform the soundtrack to Miloš Forman’s film ‘Amadeus’. Photo: Daniel Carson

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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