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'Barbarian Princess' score lacking without film


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POSTED: Tuesday, October 20, 2009

After so much discussion about the title “;Barbarian Princess”; and its inappropriateness in describing a Hawaiian princess with the term, Marc Forby's movie about Princess Kaiulani finally made its premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival a few days ago.

The event was sold out, and another screening has been added for Sunday. In between movie showings, with excellent planning and timing, the Honolulu Symphony has featured part of the movie's soundtrack in last weekend's concert.

Unfortunately, the “;Princess Ka'iulani Suite”; from the “;Barbarian Princess,”; as most film soundtracks do, did not have much impact in the context of a concert.

For example, the long notes — played by strings that in a movie might suggest yearning, memories or melancholy — lost their meaning completely when deprived of the image they support.

Even if concertmaster Ignace “;Iggy”; Chang performed his lines with pathos in the third and fourth movement of the suite, the music sounded quite weak. Lacking of any intensity, it becomes monotonous, trivial. If its intention is to suggest typical romantic imagery like the open ocean or a beautiful woman riding a horse on the beach, the score fits its purpose. But that purpose is not strong enough in the context of a symphony concert. True, memorable scores such as the soundtrack for “;Star Wars”; or “;The Godfather”; could succeed as part of a “;classical”; concert, but think of it: How many of those scores are so powerful?

Forby is well known for his skills in composing soundtracks. Among many awards, he won the Oscar for Best Music for the soundtrack of “;Shakespeare in Love”; in 1999, and composed for several movies. Although his compositions work perfectly for those films, they are rarely performed in concerts. So the question is — and it is an old one for concert audiences and reviewers — In a concert, is the occasion more important than musical substance? There should be a balance of both, I think.

OCCASION AND substance were actually harmoniously combined in the piece following Forby's suite. What made the evening was Brazilian-born pianist Arnaldo Cohen. The quality of his performance of Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 and the piece itself provided the musical substance to the event.

The one-movement concerto presents technical challenges that require excellent control of the keyboard and perfect sense of rhythm. In the score, there are notes way above and down below the staff lines and everything in between so that the performer must run his hands all over the keyboard.

In addition, the score requires extremely precise timing with the orchestra and physical strength combining volume and speed. On top of these technical skills, sudden changes of mood also characterize the work, forcing the performer to exercise extreme control during his interpretation. Cohen could do it all. Physical challenge is not an issue for him. And elegance and strength are the characteristics of his touch.

Although lacking their customary distinctive sound when performing under Andreas Delfs' baton, the musicians did a good job adjusting to Cohen's verve and pathos.

However, combining its efforts with American conductor Gerard Schwartz, the orchestra made the last work of the program, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, “;Pathetique,”; the true occasion of the evening.

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Valeria Wenderoth has a doctorate in musicology from the University of Hawaii-Manoa, where she also teaches.