RTÉ Concert Orchestra ‘An American in Paris’ at National Concert Hall, 3rd June 2017

This bank holiday weekend sees a trip to the cinema like no other, as the RTÉ Concert Orchestra present Vincente Minelli’s classic, ‘An American in Paris’. Combining the CO’s formidable musical force with that of Gene Kelly, Georges Guétary, Oscar Levant, and tonight’s conductor Jack Everly, this evening’s offering is a synthesis of old and new.

The film follows Jerry Mulligan (the titular American, played by Gene Kelly), an ex-G.I. turned painter, in his attempts to woo the mysterious Lise (Leslie Caron) against the backdrop of decadent Parisian sets and Gershwin’s even more decadent music. Here reconstructed by John Wilson (the original score, Thomson laments, is probably “under some underpass somewhere”), the score features such favourites as ‘S Wonderful, I got Rhythm, and, of course the An American in Paris ballet sequence.

The ensemble prove, indisputably, that they have not only rhythm, but oodles of enthusiasm to match. If one can draw one’s eyes away from Minelli’s luxurious visuals, one can see Thomson conduct with a fitting level of showmanship. His jazzy hand gestures and rhythmic swaying are such that, as far as tonight’s performance goes, his only rival is Oscar Levant’s daydream conductor (who is, fittingly enough, Oscar Levant). The experience is an immersive one, as audience members intermittently burst into applause, disavowing notions of concert hall etiquette in favour of spontaneous expressions of delight.

The strongest moments for both orchestra and conductor are those at which music takes a primary role in characterisation, notably Lise’s entrance—the Concert Orchestra tackles the contrasting passages as impeccably as Caron tackles the choreography—and Guétary’s performance of I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, with orchestra and conductor in full, joyous swing. The latter brings the first ‘act’ to an end on a high note, and sets the scene for the emotional tumult of the second. Minnelli’s tale of romance is one that is not free from heartbreak, both that of Jerry, and of those supporting characters whose fate is never revealed.

The An American in Paris ballet, a seventeen minute mini dance epic, is a veritable feast for the senses, distilling the essence of decadence in Hollywood musical. As lines and lyrics give way to dance, the orchestra truly hit their stride, allowing Gershwin’s sumptuous sounds to roll over the audience as they are accosted by a stream of ever more vibrant costumes and sets. The effect is, at times, somewhat disconcerting, the tangible presence of the orchestra adding a sensory dimension absent from the traditional movie-going experience and startling in its power.

The resounding applause that greets the finale is not surprising. The evening’s only weaknesses are the occasional inconsistencies in the film’s sound-quality, which are duly compensated for by subtle shifts in orchestral dynamics, and which are certainly not enough to prevent audience members from enthusiastically humming as they exit the Concert Hall. The ‘living cinema’ created in the synthesis of live and recorded sound and image is a unique and all-too-rare one, but is, as Kelly and Co might sing, wonderful.

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