The intimate Diana Wortham Theatre was the host venue for this extraordinary artistic cinematic experience produced and performed by the Asheville Choral Society under the direction of Dr. Melodie Galloway. Assisting the 90+ members of the chorus was a 30-piece orchestra placed onstage with the chorus and pianist/keyboardist Brad Curtioff. Performing eleven different numbers (some of them multi-movement or medleys), the chorus explored an astonishing variety of music for film which grew out of operatic, church, musical theatre, and vaudeville traditions. Though not without a few technical flaws, it was well conceived and wonderfully uplifting.

This program far exceeded my expectations. I suppose I had anticipated a recreation of movie scores which featured chorus with the corresponding footage shown from the film. Instead, the approach was far more creative, resulting more in an exploration of themes, emotions, places, and cultures suggested by sounds, with montages shown in sync with the music performed live. In a few cases, music was chosen for its intrinsic interest, and film footage was selected that connected with it, either purely visually, emotionally, or through the narrative. Because the performers were all on stage, the film screen was lowered only about one-quarter of the way, with the visuals appearing much like supertitles at an opera. A huge amount of work went into the selection and editing of the film clips used in this program, which lasted an hour and a half without intermission; unfortunately, those artists were not identified in the program.

The program began with “Miserere mei Deus,” by Gregorio Allegri. This was performed a cappella with sections of its penitential psalm text alternating between the large chorus and a small group of ten singers to stage right, the latter producing all those famous high Cs. Footage of candles being lighted, floating in space and then extinguished, underscored one liturgical usage of this famous text, that within the service of Tenebrae on Maundy Thursday. The piano was the sole accompaniment of the “Flower Duet” (“Sous le dôme épais”) from Delibes’s opera Lakmé, with soloists Tabitha Judy and Kristina Pontin. Here the music was really loosened from its original moorings, as footage from Coppola’s The Black Stallion enacted a different duet, a gradual bonding between a boy and the great black horse who are shipwrecked on a desert island. One of the most thrilling numbers was “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, sung full out to war footage which ran the gamut from Saving Private Ryan  to Gladiator to Bridge on the River Kwai to War Horse. Another a cappella selection was John Tavener‘s “Song for Athene,” written in memory of family friend Athene Hariades who was killed in a cycling accident. The chorus performed this as a tender tribute to Mother Earth. Here some intonation problems were apparent, and the small size of the screen worked against the depiction of the majesty of the natural world.

The closest relationship between the original film score and the actual film footage was the excellent recreation of the deathbed dictation scene of the “Confutatis” and the “Lacrimosa” from Mozart’s Requiem as seen in the film Amadeus. The dying Mozart is dictating the score to Salieri part by part, with each part executed as it was finished. Just as in the film scene, the chorus and orchestra performed each line, and then the entire finished product as we watched the final film scenes, though scenes from elsewhere in the movie (the finale of Don Giovanni and the collapse of Mozart at the performance of The Magic Flute) were also in the mix. Unfortunately the quality of these film clips was very poor and very dark; some of it didn’t project well at all.

Film scorer Franz Waxman, who wrote music for several films (including Hitchcock’s Rebecca) and TV shows in the 1930s-’60s, was saluted with footage and orchestral music from Demetrius and the Gladiators and clips from other epics (such as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments). Including the musical The King and I, where the music of Rogers and Hammerstein (adapted by Alfred Newman) is a more prominent part of the film, was a bold stroke (Can a musical be seen apart from its music?). The problem here again was big movies, grandiose themes, tiny screen.

The ravishingly beautiful “The Seal Lullaby” by Eric Whitacre was composed for a film that was never made. For this, a short film, My Favourite Things, about a brief encounter between a young girl and boy, was an inspired choice. For the next selection, Karl Jenkins‘ rousing “Adiemus,” a world-music inspired piece with vocalizations, accompanied by footage of global peoples, brought some of the evening’s biggest applause. Verdi’s “Dies irae” was light years from its place in his Requiem, being redeployed as light saber sword fight footage — and just great fun.

One of my favorites of the evening was the Gershwin medley “Who Could Ask for Anything More?,” a string of six show-stopping pearls. The film footage was a veritable walk through film history, including some of the industry’s most memorable smooches and captivating dancing sequences. To close, there were two numbers from Ennio Morricone‘s score for The Mission. “Gabriel’s Oboe” was a melodious recessional of the humming chorus from the stage and into the aisles, then “The River” theme was delivered with this newly created surround sound. Thanks to the Asheville Choral Society for giving us this terrifically entertaining and nostalgic walk down movie and music memory lane. Bravi tutti!