Review: Stanley Kubrick’s musical instincts put on entertaining display in mashup of classic pieces

Jan Harlan, Stanley Kubrick, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman on the set of Eyes Wide Shut. Photo supplied by Jan Harlan

Stanley Kubrick had some of the surest instincts for music of anyone in the history of film. The director understood better than most music’s power to elevate a scene to iconic status. Without the majestic pedal C opening of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, it would just be an actor in a monkey suit.

Sunday evening’s Chamberfest concert at Dominion-Chalmers presented a Kubrick “mashup,” with an assortment of guest soloists and ensembles playing selections from his movie scores. As an added treat, Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s longtime executive producer took the stage to reminisce with host Eric Friesen about the films and how each composition was chosen.

This entertaining program was the idea of pianist Hinrich Alpers, who is also a movie buff. Alpers and Jamie Parker got things started with a lively, charming piano four-hands transcription of the Overture to Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra, from A Clockwork Orange.

Kubrick used the bleak, trudging Andante con moto from Schubert’s second Piano Trio to terrific effect in his 1975 film Barry Lyndon. It can be challenging to play single movements out of context, but the Gryphon Trio quickly established a mood of melancholy resignation, the main theme solemnly enunciated by cellist Roman Borys. Liszt’s flamboyant two-piano transcription of the Scherzo from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony followed, another Clockwork Orange reference. Alpers and Parker were especially impressive in the Presto section, the themes ping-ponging seamlessly between the two keyboards.

Alpers returned solo after the intermission, with a meticulously calibrated performance of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata ii, from Eyes Wide Shut (Harlan pointedly noted that, while poorly received in English-speaking countries, Kubrick’s last film did well in Japan and Latin America.)

Gary Kulesha led the Penderecki and Cecilia string quartets, Alpers, and a half-dozen guest instrumentalists in the creepy, disembodied slow movement from Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, forever associated with The Shining. The ensemble wrapped up with the premiere of Alpers’ witty transcription of the Blue Danube Waltz. It’s a testament to Kubrick’s complete genius that the graceful spinning most people associate with this music is of spaceships, not dancers.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.