Last Friday night I attended a very special screening of "Casablanca with the San Francisco Symphony" at Davies Hall. Conductor Michael Francis led the orchestral accompaniment and a full house spent the evening in thrall to Warner Bros.' sublime 1942 film classic and composer Max Steiner's unforgettable score.
|Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco|
When the lights flickered and muted tones chimed, it was time for my friend and I to take an elevator to the second tier balcony. From blissfully comfortable seats we spied a huge screen at center stage surrounded by the symphony orchestra. Mr. Francis entered, stepped to the podium, picked up his baton, glanced into a small monitor next to his sheet music and in a moment the hall reverberated with those oh-so-familiar notes that herald the start of a Warner Bros. picture. Then came Max Steiner's almost as familiar score:
The San Francisco orchestra interpreted Steiner's music a bit more gently, with less bombast, than the original movie soundtrack. The experience of a live score lent both immediacy and charm to the viewing experience and it was interesting, from time to time, to steal a look at the musicians as they accompanied familiar scenes. The harpist was fascinating to watch and listen to during the Paris flashback sequence. The essence of magic that is new love seemed to float from her strings.
|...at Rick's, Bogart, Madeleine Lebeau and Leonid Kinskey|
Perusing the program during intermission, I came upon Larry Rothe's insightful write-up on the picture and read of many things I knew and didn't know about Casablanca...
I found out that the timing of the film's release was auspicious. Casablanca premiered in New York in November 1942. The Allies had invaded North Africa earlier in the month - which was significant. Even more powerful was the fact that in January 1943 President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill met in Casablanca to discuss the terms of an Axis surrender. This became headline news at the end of discussions, on January 24. Casablanca had gone into national release the day before...a windfall for Warner's PR team.
|Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion|
According to Rothe, Steiner wove four major musical themes through the film. The first, of course, is "As Time Goes By," a song that became immortal with Casablanca. The second is the romantic theme accompanying the flashback to Paris. The third theme is France's national anthem, the "Marseillaise," first played as part of the title sequence, but most memorably featured when Victor Laszlo leads the crowd at Rick's in a stirring rendition of the anthem. A conscience-stirring variation on the "Marseillaise," first heard when Ilsa tells Rick about her devotion to Laszlo and the Resistance, is the fourth theme.
The entire night was thrilling (and I hope the fact that it sold out will persuade the symphony to do this again), but there was one moment I don't ever want to forget...listening to the San Francisco symphony play "Perfidia" as Bogart and Bergman dance (and he presses his face to hers) ...exquisite!
Meanwhile, Max Steiner's day is not done in San Francisco. Friday, July 29, the Castro Theatre begins a seven-day, 13-picture program, "Legendary Composer: Max Steiner." Included in the series will be Mildred Pierce, The Letter, Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Gone with the Wind, Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, White Heat, Angels with Dirty Faces, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, King Kong and The Searchers. Click here to learn more.