by Nick Stubblefield
The moment the heavy string vibrato and lush jazz harmonies of "Moon River" hit my eardrums at the New York Philharmonic's live play-a-long to Breakfast at Tiffany's Thursday night at David Geffen Hall, I was instantly transported to a different era. It's just so 1960s, I thought, knowing of course that composer Henry Mancini's beloved compositions largely defined the sound of that decade. The Philharmonic wasn't exactly in their element on a jazz and Latin-infused score, but they rose to the occasion with verve, and the result was a marvel.
Mancini's score calls for different instrumentation than a standard orchestra set-up. It's heavy on percussion -- there were drumsets and lots of sparkling vibraphone. In the party scenes, brightly-timbred piano held down groovy bossa-nova riffs. Saxophone and other brass played so loudly at times that the film's dialogue was largely inaudible -- a minor burr remedied with subtitles on the large projector screen. The score is also rich with the twinkling sonorities of vibraphones, harps, and high-register piano, all in high-definition thanks to the orchestra's crisp and precise playing.
Notwithstanding the mallet work (pure ear candy!) and rick-rollicking percussion in the party scenes, the strings provided the emotional weight to the film. Breakfast at Tiffany's carefully balances sadness and humor, and the string players maintained that balance with sublime phrasing and dynamic contrasts. They entered the opening of “Moon River” refrain with a delicate, yet thick vibrato that evoked the sensitive nature of the film's protagonists. Unctuous vibrato is often associated with those saccharine, gauzy B-movies of old, but here the strings succeeded in conjuring feelings of longing and sadness, touching even the hardened heart.
There's no question that orchestras, like most musical performances, are best heard live. Recorded film scores, however, are destined for playback through theater speakers, or worse – through a TV. A live performance of a film score is something cinephiles or music listeners would likely appreciate deeply and should experience at any opportunity.