From the moment attendees stepped onto the red carpet at the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, they were bombarded by a crowd of fake paparazzi. The San Francisco Symphony opened its doors Saturday to cinema enthusiasts for “A Night at the Oscars,” a show in which they played some of film’s greatest scores along to select scenes from the films projected onto a massive screen.
The lobby featured a photographer and a gigantic cutout of an Oscar. Men wore their suits (some even went for tuxedos), and women came in glamorous dresses. There was champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries. The event was built on making people feel as though they were attending the Academy Awards during the age of Old Hollywood. Certainly, an orchestral accompaniment to classic, Oscar-winning films helped propel this aesthetic.
The night began with scenes from “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) as well as some confusion. The symphony played beautifully, but the dialogue from the film was almost completely inaudible yet undoubtedly present. It detracted from the experience by making the experience as a whole sound like a murmuring audience member was interrupting every song throughout the first half of the show.
When “Gone with the Wind” (1939) started, the same tragedy occurred, making it apparent the problem would remain. Thankfully, though, the orchestra’s rendition of this film in particular was breathtaking to say the least, and no cinephile would be unfamiliar with the lines in the scenes that were chosen, even when hardly audible. The triumph of Scarlett O’Hara resonated thoroughly as she exclaimed her iconic line, “I’ll never be hungry again!” in front of the orange sky.
Finally, before the intermission, the first half concluded with “Ben-Hur” (1959) and the music’s mythical feel somehow managed to transcend the epic scenes that were projected onscreen (again, though, this may have had to do with the problem with the film’s audio). In particular, the percussion and brass were given their chance to shine here.
Thankfully, post-intermission, the problems with the film audio disappeared and the rest of the show went smoothly. “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) closed out the show in a goosebump-inducing manner.
Sandwiched in between was “Finale from Piano Concerto in F major” from “An American in Paris” (1951) played completely in its original form without orchestral accompaniment. While perplexing at first, it became a whimsical addition to the program. The orchestra seemed to acknowledge that the viewer had to question where to look during the performances — the screen or at the performers. Even when one looks at the orchestra, where does one look? In the famous scene, Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a struggling pianist, daydreams that he is playing Gershwin for an orchestra. As the scene unfolds, he is revealed to be the conductor, other members in the orchestra and even an audience member that gives a standing ovation.
Similarly, there seems to be a lack of appreciation by moviegoers for the symphonies that perform the scores or the composers who write them. An introduction by the host, Jon Burlingame of Variety magazine, acknowledged that film scores are becoming increasingly electronically produced and many are beautifully crafted, but he insisted that orchestral scores still have a place in Hollywood. After witnessing such a performance, it leaves very little room for doubt.