Dallas — In 1927, with the end of the silent film era looming, German-born director F.W. Murnau, working in Hollywood at Fox Studio, produced one of the final masterpieces of silent cinema, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans.
Tuesday night at Dallas City Performance Hall, the 29th annual Dallas VideoFest and the Dallas Chamber Symphony co-sponsored a screening of Sunrise accompanied by a live performance of a brand new score written for the occasion by Joe Kraemer (see our interview with him here). One of Hollywood’s most successful currently active film composers, Kraemer has provided the scores for film projects ranging from The Way of the Gun to the hit 2015 action thriller Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation, often working with digitally produced sound. Although he has worked with resources ranging all the way up to a full 88-piece symphony orchestra for Mission Impossible, here he took on the challenge of creating a 95-minute score for a 16-member, within the limits of a 16-member, completely acoustic chamber orchestra.
Along with obvious challenges for a composer, Sunrise, well-known to connoisseurs of historical cinema but virtually unknown to a broader audience, provides numerous surprises and intriguing elements for the first-time viewer. These include a starring role for Janet Gaynor, who became one of the greatest stars of the talkies in the 1930s and whose career extended to an appearance in an episode of The Love Boat in 1971 and stage productions of Harold and Maude and On Golden Pond in the 1970s and 1980s.
Structurally, Sunrise ricochets from a rural European village setting (complete with thatched roofs and ox-drawn plows) to a modern city with jazz bands, electric lights and automobile traffic jams, reflecting early twentieth-century cultural anxiety. The tension of rural and urban, and of traditional life and capitalist consumer society, abounds: a dark-haired seductress from the city seduces a simple farmer (who, we learn, has had his cow repossessed by evil lenders) and convinces the farmer to drown his innocent and beautiful wife. He wisely has second thoughts, and the farmer and his wife renew their love in the big city, where they indulge in a series of humorous misadventures that befall country folk when they go to town. A storm on the lake on their journey home nearly results in the drowning of the wife, which leads to a final reaffirmation of their love as the sun rises over their home village.
The odd mix of pathos, comedy, and melodrama (odd to 21st-century viewers) inspired a largely romantic score from Kraemer, rich with broad melodies and the effective, adrenalin pumping techniques he has honed from his years of composing for film.
But there were several even more impressive accomplishments from Kraemer here. He proved miraculously efficient in enabling a 16-member orchestra to produce grand symphonic effects, the most impressive of which arrived in the sonic spaciousness with which he matched the expansive visual effect as the central couple walk away from the city toward home. Equally important, Kraemer’s highly detailed but unfailingly lyrical approach enhanced the sense of immediacy in a cinematic drama which can be, on the surface, elusive.
Kraemer, whose music has accompanied some of the most widely viewed hit movies of recent years, admitted that this was his first experience of hearing his music played live before a live audience. He was further rewarded by a cheering ovation from that audience at the final triumphant cadence.
Conductor Richard McKay skillfully coordinated the live orchestra with film projection in this complex score, with a consistently rich and precise performance from the orchestra. The Dallas Chamber Symphony’s presentation of silent classics with newly commissioned scores, along with parallel activity by Dallas VideoFest, continues to be a wonderful addition to the city’s cultural life, with the twin accomplishment of introducing great historical cinema to new audiences along with some of the best of new American music.
> The Dallas VideoFest runs through Oct. 23. See our preview of the festival here.