The Passion of Joan of ArcMar 10th, 2012 | By John Friedrich | Category: Sights
Lacking sound might be the new vinyl. As “The Artist” swept the Oscars, Greensboro can claim to be one of the early communities to jump on the bandwagon of a resurgence of silent film, though in actuality Aycock Theater on Tate Street was anything but silent. A unique mash up of choral and orchestral players crowded the narrow band of stage below the screen.
I first expected the musicians to simply perform the original score, which would be sufficiently cool on its own, yet composer Richard Einhorn conceived the idea of “an Oratoria with Silent Film,” with a completely reimagined sound to accompany Carl Dreyer’s 1924 film The Passion of Joan of Arc, which played on February 28.
Using the recorded legal transcripts and diaries of the young French heroine, who defied the Church and society’s expectations to become a symbolic and actual leader of the French resistance against English occupiers, Dreyer created a disturbing and emotional film that would have been moving even if seen devoid of music. 1924 was early in the history of film, but even taking that into consideration, Joan of Arc was rather pared down, with the majority of the scenes taking place in starkly white prison cells featuring long close-ups of the faces of her tormentors.
Enough spice was fed to the audience with scenes of the torture chamber and an abortive riot of Joan’s supporters who attempt to seek revenge after she is slowly burned at the stake for refusing to denounce her visions and special calling from God. Ultimately this was a psychological affair, as many European films have continued to be, rather than one based on a quick pace and special effects.
As impressive as it is to see a ninety-year-old movie on the silver screen, the real action was down front on stage. A combination of chamber singers and an unorthodox selection from the orchestra from UNCG joined forces with the Greensboro Youth Chorus and the professional Bel Canto Company to all break down barriers in a quest to make beautiful music.
A person who is gifted enough to speak French may have gotten the most from the music, as the lyrics were so written. But this was not just the dry experience of going to a classical music concert, where you dress up and keep daydreaming about taking your date out for drinks once the music stops. This was a true experience of performance art, the use of soloist singers mixed with a chorus and orchestral pieces became a spiritual event in a building old enough to have exquisite acoustics in its design rather than relying on microphoned sound systems. The music was powerful in its own right, and when combined with the disturbing and claustrophobic film, it was easy to find yourself in a proper trance and incapable of daydreaming.
“Tearing apart an orchestra and choruses like that is really big deal,” enthused John Pavik, a UNCG music student and church organist. “I wasn’t sure it could be done, but it worked amazingly well. I’m glad I got to see it,” he continued.
Those who think Greensboro is a dull town are just those who are failing paying attention. Not every town, even those larger than us, has an arts community willing to explore the future by remixing classic forms.