by Michael Caruso
The planets and stars were all in alignment Wednesday, July 16, when the Venissa Santi Quartet performed in Chestnut Hill’s Pastorius Park. For the first time in a month, the weather had nothing to do with the concert. There was no threat of rain, so Santi’s performance was neither moved indoors nor cut short. As a result, the Park’s natural amphitheater was packed with an audience that enjoyed the music and showered the musicians with well-deserved applause.
With John Stenger on piano, Jason Fraticelli on acoustic double bass and Francois Zayas on drums, Santi displayed a beautifully agile and supple voice and the ability to bring several musical influences into her signature Afro-Cuban style of jazz.
For most of their songs, Santi and her band started with a brash, upbeat introduction characterized by sharp accents, undulating off-rhythms and tart dissonances that rather quickly transitioned to a slower, easier tempo, eventually returning to the bigger, brassier mood of the start for the finale. Her singing Wednesday night was both lyrical and sultry, eloquent yet seductive, never out-of-tune but always slinking into and out of pure pitch in order to color the notes.
Even more impressive was her scat singing, imitating the sound of jazz instruments in the tradition of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme. She improvised elaborate cadenzas that took the music into and out of nearby and far away tonalities. Hers was a performance of consummate artistry.
The Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Fairmount Park presented “’Gladiator’ Live” Friday evening, July 18. While the 2000 Academy Award winning film was shown both inside and outside the amphitheater, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale and vocal soloist Clara Sanabras performed Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard’s musical score under the baton of Justin Freer. The event drew a substantial audience of several thousand music and cinema lovers who cheered both the action onscreen and the music making onstage.
Although “Gladiator” and its leading actor, Russell Crowe, won Oscars, Zimmer & Gerrard’s score did not. All the same, their musical contributions to the film’s tremendous critical and popular success are undeniable. Following in the traditions established by such Hollywood giants as Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, their score both describes the context and propels the narrative of “Gladiator.” One can hardly imagine the movie working as effectively as it does recreating the world of the Roman Empire at the end of the 2nd century A.D without the sound track’s presence.
The music goes far beyond mirroring the events and emotions of the film; it enhances the impact of those events and broadens and deepens the emotions that flow from them, so much so that there are times when the dialogue is of secondary importance. Still, having the dialogue subtitled on the screen was a valuable addition.
Freer, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale and Sanabras all gave sterling performances Friday evening. Freer’s work on the podium was especially praiseworthy. He held his musicians together in perfect synchronization with the film onscreen.
The orchestra’s management should take note of the popularity of film scores, in particular the work of two acclaimed composers with local ties who wrote scores of true genius. Alex North grew up in Chester, attended Philadelphia’s Settlement Music School and the Curtis Institute of Music and then the Juilliard School of Music in New York City before heading west to Hollywood. It was there in 1962 that he composed the score for “Cleopatra.” Nino Rota also attended Curtis, afterwards composing the score for “The Godfather.” Both North and Rota arranged concert suites from those two films. Perhaps the Philadelphians might perform them in concert as part of one of their future seasons.