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SCRUTINY | TSO Gets Sentimental With A Silver Screen 'Casablanca'

By Brian Chang on February 16, 2019

TSO Casablanca
Casablanca’s has not been lost to history. The film and its music continue to stand the test of time, 77 years later, with every bit of sentimentality intact.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents “Casablanca: Film with Live Orchestra” February 15th & 16th, 7:30 pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Conducted by Evan Mitchell. See here for details.

“Here’s looking at you kid,” says Humphrey Bogart, playing the lead of Rick Blaine. The music swells underneath with the main melody of As Time Goes By. The swirling music is at the heart of the film, a recurring and constant love theme that plays throughout the soundtrack. The rich sentimentalism of the soundtrack and the film came together for a captivating presentation of the 1942 film, Casablanca.  

The TSO presented the classic film live with Evan Mitchell helming the performances. Mitchell was last at the helm of the TSO in November of 2018 conducting Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Film Concert as part of the Sony Centre presentations of the film series. Helming the Motion Picture Symphony Orchestra, Mitchell has led many of the film concerts presented by the Sony Centre including Jurassic Park, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Casino Royale.

Mitchell was successful in bringing the romance of the Max Steiner score through to the audience. The music, as a character, helps drive the narrative focus of the film. Bogart’s monotonous, broody presentation was brought alive by much of the score. It isn’t Bogart that stands out as Rick Blaine, it’s the supporting characters that make him into the star of the film. The friendship and playfulness with Louis Renault, the reverence displayed towards him by his staff, most of all, the romance is best described in the eyes of Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund. Her eyes were the most illuminating, telling us the story of how she feels about Rick, often with music to underscore the sentiment.

Black and White filming required a different approach to lighting than the full-colour experiences we know now. Knowing that your visual palette is made up of shadows, Michael Curtiz’s direction and use of shadows were remarkable in their beauty. Curtiz won the Academy Award for Best Director on Casablanca.

There are a few examples of the shadows at play, Rick opening the safe to get money, the dancer’s shadow when we first enter the “Blue Parrot,” and most markedly, during Ilsa’s first nighttime visit to Rick. Rick is morose and drinking alone at a table in the shadows. Ilsa, wrapped in a scarf, is illuminated by light as soon as she enters. A gentle string accompaniment lies underneath the scene. Much of the score is a gentle, moving presence. There’s nothing loud or bombastic in this score.

The film’s composer, Max Steiner, also composed the music to many classics including King Kong (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939), and over 300 films in his career. With three Academy Awards for Best Score, he was also the first to receive a Golden Globe in the category for Best Musical Score.

The use of the French National anthem, La Marseillaise, is extensive in the score, appearing throughout the film in various forms. If you don’t know the theme well before listening to the soundtrack, you definitely know it by the end of the film. Steiner uses variations on the anthem over and over again, making bits of the score seem familiar. A variation plays over the final dialogue of the music heard through the famous line “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

La Marseillaise serves a strong political message in the narrative elements of the movie as well. The battle of the anthems between the German patriotic anthem Die Wacht am Rhein and La Marseillaise was a powerful moment in the movie. Knowing the historical context of the film, right in the midst of World War II, the nationalist tensions of the movie were easily expressed by Steiner’s use of music. This scene was also one of the only times the orchestra was in full-force during the performance.

Steiner’s score travels a gamut of styles, which the TSO was able to match with acuity. Whether the Principal string players at work when we first see Laszlo, Miles Jaque’s Bass Clarinet and Jeffrey Beecher’s Double Bass lines in “The Blue Parrot” or when the orchestra joins in on one of the jazz themes, the music is consistent and gorgeous.

With a swell of the main theme, Ilsa says “Kiss me, kiss me as if it were the last time,” the romance of the film and the performance just washes over the audience. The famous theme, As time goes by, wasn’t written by Max Steiner. It was written over a decade earlier by Herman Hupfield in 1931. Steiner uses the theme so often in Casablanca that the two have become inseparable. Dooley Wilson, the character of Sam, provided the vocals for the film version.

The score editing for this particular film concert was beautifully compiled. Many musical themes start from the original track and then carefully add thicker and more ornate orchestrations in the live orchestra. The transitions from music to silence and back were all superbly executed by Mitchell and the TSO.

The score comes from a time when music studios had in-house orchestras dedicated to film music, and it is important that scores like Casablanca’s have not been lost to history. The film and its music continue to stand the test of time, 77 years later, with every bit of sentimentality intact.

A classic film like Casablanca is worth introducing to new generations. The live concert format allows for a new experience from even the most avid fan to someone watching their first black and white film. Next year, as part of the 2019/2020 season, the TSO will take on the classic Singing in the Rain. Check out the other highlights in our LvT preview.


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