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In an rare performance at the Carolina Theatre, the Mallarmé Chamber Players combined film and music with a screening the famous silent thriller, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Although a Venn diagram of German Expressionism film fans and chamber music fans may not overlap too much, there is something to be said for learning and experiencing something new at a concert. Either way, Mallarmé put on a very precise and fun performance of Eric Schwartz's original score.
The film itself is a study in distortion and surrealism, reflected handily in Schwartz's music and performance thereof. Obscured lens effects and weird, angled scenery come together in this 1920 silent film, where an insane "doctor" fools the townspeople and sends a hypnotized sleepwalker (or "somnambulist") to commit several murders for him. The story is recounted through the eyes of the main character, Francis, who in a twist ending is revealed to be committed to an asylum himself, creating this whole story based on the other people around him.
Schwartz, who is now the music director for the UNCSA School of Dance, was seated facing the musicians and led through a click track to keep the five players perfectly aligned with the film (many precise sound effects made this crucial). The musicians, wearing headphones, stayed together marvelously in a soundtrack that was at times appropriately spooky and sometimes humorous, using deliberate dissonance and unusual vocal sounds. Bo Newsome played the oboe, sporting sprightly melodies often alongside soprano Andrea Edith Moore. Violist Suzanne Rousso (also the artistic director of Mallarmé) and cellist Nathan Leyland supplied much of the eeriness, imitating creaks by sliding up and down the fingerboard. Pianist Jacqueline Nappi often sported Philip Glass-like patterns, just like the hypnosis of Dr. Caligari.
The film, told in six acts, begins with expository music – perky melodies with an air of mystery set the scene. Arpeggios in the cello and viola were beautifully played, while Sprechstimme-like vocal sounds reflected the confusion to come. In tense moments, two or more instrumentalists played adjacent pitches simultaneously, leaning into the dissonances. Key moments in the film matched with the music, such as the initial awakening of the somnambulist Cesare (the murder weapon), accompanied by frenzied patterns in the cello. A lengthy oboe solo during dialogue in the fourth Act reflected vocal patterns with agility, too. As the film closed, going back to the original opening scene of the narrator, musical themes from the beginning returned to wrap it up, slightly altered considering the twisted ending. The Mallarmé Chamber Players definitely created a unique concert experience perfect for this spooky time of year.