by Angela Sutton
The New York Jewish Film Festival presented a restored 1918 silent film, The Yellow Ticket, with new scoring performed live by its composer, violinist Alicia Svigals, on Thursday at the Walter Reade Theater. The film follows Lea, a young Jewish woman who studies medicine in St. Petersburg under a false identity. (In Czarist Russia, Jews faced heavy official discrimination, including limited access to universities.) Lea's landlady, aware of Lea's status from the passport that Jews were compelled to carry (the titular item), blackmails Lea into serving as an escort at the landlady's nightclub in exchange for rent. When the university and nightclub worlds collide, threatening disaster, Lea attempts suicide. Incredibly, there is nonetheless a happy ending...
Svigals' score channels this sadness in its heavy debt to klezmer and Polish folk music (though it is entirely original). Svigals added wordless vocals, Bartokian string effects, and even something resembling opera themes, which she and jazz pianist Marilyn Lerner presented in accompaniment to the film. The music slipped seamlessly from theme to theme, the only breaks coming at points which reinforced the action on screen. Some of the music was improvised, but carried off so skillfully as to be indistinguishable from the scored portions. The score's sustained evolution of mood matched the film well until it made the gratuitous happy ending seem even more unbelievable. But this was a problem with the film, not the music.
The Yellow Ticket will be touring North America in the coming months, and the New York Jewish Film Festival runs through Jan. 24.