Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Music feature: PB Symphony readies score for 'Potemkin'

A scene from Battleship Potemkin.

By Greg Stepanich

Ramón Tebar has worked with demanding sopranos, played as a soloist and chamber musician, and conducted orchestras in symphony, ballet and opera.

But for the 30-year-old Spanish conductor, directing an orchestra as the accompaniment to a soundtrack is the hardest thing he's ever done.

"The main reason is that, as a conductor, I don't have the freedom and flexibility that you have doing a regular performance," said Tebar, who will conduct a greatly expanded Palm Beach Symphony on Wednesday afternoon to accompany Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein's classic silent film from 1925.

The score for the film is the one assembled by Dmitry Atomvyan and Roger Bergs from five symphonies composed by Dmitri Shostakovich (Nos. 4, 5, 8, 10 and 11). Composer Edmund Meisel wrote the original score for the film, but it's the Shostakovich assemblage that has gained favor in orchestra concerts featuring the movie.

In a performance with life musicians, each concert is a little different, but nothing changes with Potemkin, he said.

"In a film score, your tempi are established already in the cues. The film doesn't breathe, doesn't wait and it is reproduced by a machine at the same velocity always," Tebar (at left) wrote in an e-mail. "We are not machines, and it is very difficult for musicians to perform every day without having a variation on time, rubato, phrasing."

Variation is what makes music alive, Tebar said, but in this case, musicians have to prepare for a different kind of experience.

"With 'Potemkin' everything is set previously: When to start, when to end, at what tempo," he wrote. "And so we have to accommodate ourselves to accompany the film very precisely. Otherwise, the public would feel a disconnect between the music and the scenes."

While it's the Palm Beach Symphony that is the featured group here, Wednesday's concert also offers a chance for concertgoers to watch Potemkin, a seminal film "not just in Soviet and Russian terms, but universally," said Shelly Isaacs, a local film expert who founded and hosts the popular Cafe Cinemathique International programs and curates a foreign film series at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Potemkin, which is based on a 1905 mutiny of sailors aboard that battleship, "remains one of the greatest propaganda films of all time," Isaacs wrote in an e-mail. Soviet leaders pointed to the Potemkin mutiny during the restless summer of 1905 as a precursor of the revolution that was to transform the country beginning in 1917.

"The film has influenced not just filmmakers, but political and communications theorists and thinkers, as well. Eisenstein was very clear in his intent to make the audience sympathize with the mutinous sailors, and they do," Isaacs wrote. "His ability to elicit physical and verbal responses with his violent mis-en-scène and cutting became a tool not just for the Soviets, but for the Nazis as well. You cannot help but believe that Leni Riefenstahl was greatly influenced by Eisenstein when creating 'Triumph of the Will.'

"But its impact is everlasting, and can be seen in the works of the world’s greatest directors and artists," he wrote.

Tebar, who is the orchestra's assistant conductor, said an additional 30 to 35 musicians have been added to the Palm Beach Symphony's usual roster of around 40, so that the size of the orchestra will be almost double what it usually is. That's vital for these symphonies, which were written for large orchestras.

Shostakovich's music works beautifully with the film, he said.

"It fits so well that it represents perfectly the drama, tragedy, isolation, despair and joy of the film," he wrote. "I think that Eisenstein's images and scenes, and Shostakovich's personal language and music world were so close that it captures the whole atmosphere of the moment."

One of the best-known scenes from the film is the Odessa Steps sequence, in which Tsarist troops march down the steps firing into a crowd. One of the fatalities is a woman with a baby in a carriage; as she dies, the carriage slips away, baby and all, down the steps.

Isaacs wrote that the scene also is important because it shows how Eisenstein used the rhythm of his cuts to drive the narrative.

"As you watch the soldiers marching down the steps, a beat develops that is cut in such a way that it doesn’t synchronize with the cutting of the frames. This builds tension," Isaacs wrote. "And once the baby carriage is introduced, it begins to roll down the steps, creating another rhythmic movement that in turn makes the marching seem faster, accelerating both movement and tension within the frame."

Appreciating Potemkin, he wrote, requires some understanding of the period in which it was produced, but also "an open mind."

"First and foremost, it is a work of propaganda and it very clearly demonstrates how Russian, and even international audiences, could easily be swayed to joining the Bolshevik Revolution," he wrote. "On a more fundamental level, it is an exciting story with an historical perspective."

For Tebar, the Potemkin performance is important also because it represents an advance for the Palm Beach Symphony. Its music director, Ray Robinson, recommended that Tebar conduct the film score, and wanted the orchestra to appear at the Kravis, Tebar said.

"We think that it is time for the orchestra to expand horizons. There is a clear necessity for the musicians to grow up as a group, get more presence, and also we think that the public of our community deserves to have a symphonic organization that fulfills the cultural and musical needs that they are looking for," Tebar wrote. "We hope that the audience will enjoy this performance at the Kravis, but also that they know there is a symphony orchestra in town that is growing, and willing to give and present great music for the public.

"We need music, and I think everybody needs that part of art, our universal culture," he wrote.

The Palm Beach Symphony will perform excerpts from five Shostakovich symphonies during a showing of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Kravis Center. Tickets $20-$75. Call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org.

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