For many people around the world, Casablaca is more than just a film. It sits near the top of countless Top 10 lists and you could use a multitude of positive superlatives to describe this iconic and classic film. Actually, you might be hard pressed to find a source that doesn’t talk about it without the utmost praise. This time-tested story about the events in that small corner of the world are way more than the sum of the parts. On the evenings of April 5th – 7th, the Dallas Symphony Pops Series held a special presentation of Casablanca which featured Max Steiner’s original orchestral score playing alongside the film.
If you’re a fan of Casablanca, you no doubt have see it more than a few times. Others of you might have seen it on the big screen. But if you really love the film, and are fond of Max Steiner’s memorable score, then seeing it with a live symphony is like seeing it for the first time. DSO Pops Conductor Laureate Richard Kaufman took the stage for this special 3 night engagement, which he called “Casablanca on steroids“, as he and the world-renowned Dallas Symphony helped reverently retell this classic.
Kaufman began this night of music and film by giving praise to Casablanca, among which he lauded its memorable cast while highlighting the importance of the supporting stars; those colorful additions he deemed as “the world’s greatest character actors”. Then, as this night was a tribute to the music, he gave an rather interesting little history lesson about how, at the time, Max Steiner didn’t think the now iconic and integral song “As Time Goes By” was a good fit for the film. As the film is saturated with references to it in the story, at the studio’s request Steiner wrote the song and other existing/modern themes and source music into the film. The result is a wonderful tapestry of songs, music, ideas and melodies which have become more endearing with each passing year. Hard to imagine the film would have the weight and resonance had the studio listened to Steiner on that one, huh?
In the middle of his intro, Kaufman had a technical glitch with his microphone. Having interviewed him a few days earlier, we knew Richard was not only very charismatic but also quick on his feet. No stranger to the concert stage he didn’t even blink when his microphone stopped. A seasoned performer he rolled right with it as a sound tech ran down the aisle to resolve the issue. Kaufman likened it to a relay race, and he leaned down, ready to hand off his baton to the tech which resulted in hearty audience laughter.
From the very first note of the opening theme, the Dallas Symphony came alive. They roared to life exhibiting the brass and strings sections in a way that likely and easily sent chills through every fan in attendance. As the first act played out, in many instances it was tough to take your eyes off the enormous screen. Yet doing so you were able to see what really goes into film music. Listening to a live orchestra there are so many nuances and sounds to be discovered or experienced. Many instruments that really never had a voice coming from a TV speaker now were given incredible and tangible vibrancy.
As the characters in the film are varied and dynamic, so too is Steiner’s score which, on a macro scale, is all over the map. Yet that music really just plays off of and is tailored to fit the dynamic narrative of the story itself. The film and its music are so symbiotic that they’re nearly inseparable. Again, can you imagine the film with even one less song or tune? As it can be frenetic and sweeping at times, seeing the Dallas Symphony and Richard Kaufman keep up with Steiner’s music is a testament to their skill. A collection of numerous existing songs, themes, source music, etc the architecture to the music of Casablanca is complex because it is so varied. When he wrote it, Steiner really knew how to use the studio orchestra’s instruments and over this 3 night engagement, conductor Richard Kaufman commanded their Dallas counterparts with equal parts proficiency and brilliance.
Regardless of length, films are usually written to have three acts. While shorter than something like Lawrence of Arabia or Ben Hur, Casablanca is not a film meant to be broken up. Yet to fit the format of the Symphony, the intermission was placed at such a perfect and rather logical thematic spot. Once the audience returned to their seats and the lights again dimmed, the second act was where all the setups (from Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch’s screenplay from Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s play) paid off. From Rick’s change of heart, to his tying up loose ends, to the famous send-off/showdown at the airport, the DSO never missed a beat. Their tribute payed incredible reverence to the story that has been winning hearts for generations.
Almost all too soon we had to say goodbye to Isla and Victor and then Rick and Capt. Renault. As the final notes of the La Marseillaise infused closing theme played out, Kaufman brought the orchestra from a bombastic upbeat to complete silence with a swift stroke of his right hand. But the beauty of the film and Max Steiner’s score has thrived for 70 years and will continue to be appreciated for generations. Whether you’ve seen, own, love (or a combination of all three) the film, Casablanca is the kind of film that deserves to be told and seen again and again. It’s enjoyable and memorable for a multitude of reasons and from April 5th – 7th, the DSO called attention to only one of them by showcasing Max Steiner’s wonderful score.
If you’ve never made it to see this performed live (or any event with the Dallas Symphony), you certainly own it to yourself to seek out this show. Here’s looking at you kid.
*Footnote: For those of you curious about the logistics of how the DSO synced up with the film, take a look as this article, in which conductor Richard Kaufman talks about the technical aspects of the performance.
About the Dallas Symphony Orchestra:
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra has a rich, 109-year history of artistic excellence. As the largest performing arts organization in the Southwest, the DSO is committed to the pursuit of uncompromising musical distinction through innovative and classical programming, and strives to build a community of passionate music lovers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The DSO has grown from a 40-person ensemble to a world-class orchestra since its inception in 1900, and continues to be the cornerstone of the burgeoning Arts District in downtown Dallas; a district now noted as the largest in the nation.
After an exhaustive search, the DSO named Jaap van Zweden as music director beginning in the 2008-2009 season. Eminent music directors such as Antal Dorati, Paul Kletzki, Georg Solti, Eduardo Mata and Andrew Litton laid the groundwork for important elements of today’s DSO, including extensive touring and recording, special community and education concerts and the building of the world-renowned Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.