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'The Wind' and the (Young) Lions

Salonen and Sellars (aided by old pro Sibelius) give the Lillian Gish classic a new sound.

October 04, 1998|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

If things had gone according to plan, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's season opener would have featured a collaboration between director Renny Harlin and composer Graeme Revell, as the second installment of the orchestra-commissioned Filmharmonic movies-and-music series. But Harlin had to exchange a Hollywood deadline for his Music Center debut, and instead of that work, audiences this week will experience something completely different--a screening of the 70-minute 1928 silent film "The Wind," with a "new" musical score stitched together from works by Sibelius.

Early this summer, when music director Esa-Pekka Salonen learned that the Harlin-Revell project would have to be postponed, he made a phone call to his friend, theater director and musical conceptualist Peter Sellars. They had already batted around the idea of combining "The Wind," by seminal Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (a.k.a. Seastrom, in America), with another Scandinavian, Jean Sibelius. Why not now?

"This is something we have talked about for years," said Salonen, "because we both feel that this is a very important film."

Sjostrom made "The Wind" during a brief period in Hollywood. He had previously directed Lillian Gish in "The Scarlet Letter," in 1926, and returned to direct her in one of her most memorable performances, as a young woman trapped on a frontier prairie in a loveless marriage. It was filmed in Bakersfield, with a wind machine to create the requisite turbulence.

Punctuated with Sjostrom's signature visual metaphors--in this case, Gish's melancholy face, the unrelenting wind rushing against windows, the sprawling landscapes--the film may be set in another time and place, and envisioned with 70-year-old production values, but, says Salonen, its exploration of dread and desperation has a modern feel.

Speaking from London, between a recording project and a guest-conducting gig with the Philharmonia orchestra, Salonen commented that "especially from a Scandinavian point of view, this film is seminal in many ways. Although it was made in Hollywood, it contains all the elements that, later on, became the language of [Ingmar] Bergman, for instance. You can very clearly see how the particular kind of angst in this film becomes almost a trademark for European film from a certain period." (Bergman nodded toward Sjostrom's influence when he cast the director in the lead role, Prof. Isak Borg, in "Wild Strawberries.")

There have been a number of recent projects in which modern scores have been written for silent films, but the Salonen-Sellars project offers a different sort of spin on a silent classic, matching sound and visuals of the same era.

"It's quite interesting to combine period music with period film," said Salonen, "in order to see if there was something generally in the air in that period. When you see the Sjostrom film together with this music, you suddenly understand [what] these two artists had in common."

Sjostrom's emphasis on the sprawling, desolate landscape and the dissonant tensions of his characters find their sonic corollaries in the Sibelius scores. His music suggests a mixture of arid, impressionistic spaces, with moments of discord amid an essentially tonal and heroic landscape. "Expressions," in Salonen's word, that we can all relate to.

" 'The Wind' is American in the sense that it's about vast space and life in a young country," he says. "But this could also be said of Scandinavia or Siberia, or wherever. If you listen to Sibelius' music from the middle onward, yes, it is Scandinavian, but it is also universal."

Sibelius is a musical subject dear to the heart and the podium of Salonen, who has frequently conducted and recorded the Finnish composer's work. Still, Salonen said, "Many of the works that Peter is using are pieces I've never conducted. A couple of them I've never even heard. For a Finn, this is a very intriguing thing. Here is an American person who hears and sees certain parallels between Sjostrom and the language of Sibelius, and comes up with a bunch of scores I've never seen before.

"I've been studying these works over the last couple of weeks, and some are real discoveries.

"Peter had a very clear concept about how it should be done, with lesser-known Sibelius music, which would have the same spirit as the film. I was actually stunned by how it worked. Although it was obviously not meant to, the music somehow illuminates certain gestures in the film and sometimes reinterprets them, as well. The musical experience deepens, as does the cinematic experience.

"I find this almost uncanny, because obviously it is coincidental. What happens on the detail level is very interesting, because certain things are highlighted which otherwise would go by without us noticing."

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