The National Symphony Orchestra's "Soundtracks: Music and Film," which concludes tonight at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, is probably the most unified and altogether satisfying festival the ensemble has offered since Leonard Slatkin took over the music directorship in 1996.
To be sure, this music is not on the level of the various Beethoven festivals that have been hurried onto the stage in recent Septembers. Nobody will compare the "Star Wars" theme to the "Pastorale" Symphony -- or even to "Wellington's Victory," for that matter. But the Beethoven events, for all of their innate grandeur and gravity, have sometimes felt a little slapdash; moreover, they are an immersion into a composer in whom we are already immersed. "Soundtracks," with all of its hits and misses, was a genuine exploration of the mating of sound and vision. It brought us much that was obscure and fascinating, and even the more familiar selections were presented in an unfamiliar setting that made them new.
After devoting much of last week to composers who worked in the Hollywood studios, on Thursday night Slatkin turned his attention to what he called "The European Aesthetic." The program contained the first film score ever written by a more-or-less major composer -- Camille Saint-Saens's music for a 1908 "silent" titled "L'Assasinat du Duc de Guise" -- with Arthur Honegger's "Pacific 231" and music for settings of Shakespeare by Dmitri Shostakovich and William Walton rounding out the bill. All were presented "cold" -- that is, without the film they were created to accompany -- although substantial excerpts from Shakespeare were read in Walton's score for "Henry V."
Saint-Saens created enormously comfortable music. He spun out notes by the yard, in an effortless flow and, if he rarely startles, he never disappoints. After a mistily triadic opening that seemed a prefiguration of the film work of Philip Glass (a sensation enhanced by the employment of an electronic keyboard) "L'Assasinat" fell into Saint-Saens's usual routine: passion and tension, tension and passion, weaving round and round without losing either their balance or the sweetly circumscribed politeness that clings to them.
Still, it says something for this composer's prescience that he was already writing for film in the same year that D.W. Griffith, the indubitable father of the narrative cinema, cranked out his first primitive one-reeler. But then Saint-Saens was nothing if not intellectually engaged; it should be remembered that he managed to publish a book of philosophy -- titled "Problems and Mysteries" -- in the midst of a lifetime of composing and concertizing.
Honegger's "Pacific 231" is one of those works -- like George Antheil's "Ballet Mecanique" (scored for sirens, multiple pianos, airplane propellers and various other sore thumbs) and Charles-Valentin Alkan's "Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot" -- that are more fun to hear about than they are actually to hear. The late conductor, lexicographer and all-around bon vivant Nicolas Slonimsky called this short piece a "realistic tonal portrayal of a powerful American locomotive bearing the serial number 231." That pretty well sums it up: The train shrieks, revs up, chugs and cranks along at a faster and faster pace, arrives at its destination and shuts down with a metallic thud. (Admirers of J.K. Huysmans will find it hard not to reflect on the author's loving eroticization of the locomotive in a celebrated chapter of "Against Nature" -- although Huysmans is more fun than Honegger.) In any event, Slatkin and the NSO delivered a pulsing, dynamic rendition of "Pacific 231" that was also, appropriately, leaden and slate gray, as befits its curious subject.
Most of what we heard from Shostakovich's score for a 1964 film of "Hamlet" was vulgar claptrap. Noisy, "clenched teeth" modernism fissured by the incessant rattle of the snare drum, it makes Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" seem a model of Shakespearean eloquence by comparison.
Walton's music for Laurence Olivier's 1944 realization of "Henry V" is something else again. Superbly effective in tandem with the film, it retains one's interest in concert as well, especially when passages from the play are read with the clarion majesty narrator Samuel West summoned on Thursday.
This marked the NSO premiere of a 55-minute "scenario" that Christopher Palmer has extracted from the film: The performance by the NSO, the Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Children's Chorus of Washington was fresh, ebullient, deeply musical and often very exciting.