‘Casablanca' score revived by Pacific Symphony

Richard Kaufman
Orange County Register

By Timothy Mangan

Review: Conductor Richard Kaufman leads Max Steiner’s music as film is screened.

Max Steiner's film score for "Casablanca" was given its due by conductor Richard Kaufman and the Pacific Symphony on Thursday night when they performed it live while the film was screened in Segerstrom Concert Hall. It is a subtle and sophisticated piece of work which serves the film rather than drawing attention to itself. A viewer of the film isn't supposed to notice it a good deal of the time. Thursday's performance (to be repeated Friday and Saturday) turned out to be a terrific way to highlight Steiner's score in its original context.

Through a neat trick of digital technology, Steiner's music was removed from the film's soundtrack while leaving the dialogue, sound effects and even the music performed during the course of the story (by Dooley Wilson and his band in Rick's Café Américain) in place. The orchestra, sitting onstage below a giant screen, had Steiner's original music on their stands; Kaufman had a large clock in front of him and a small screen showing "Casablanca," which allowed him to time his musical cues in perfect sync with the film.

Steiner, a prolific Hollywood composer ("King Kong" and "Gone with the Wind" are among his many credits), was born in Austria and trained in the Viennese classical tradition. Among his teachers were Brahms and Mahler; Richard Strauss was his godfather. He came to the U.S. in the teens and worked on Broadway for many years before moving to Hollywood at the beginning of the sound era, when he quickly set a standard for the new art of scoring for movies with dialogue.

In "Casablanca," that art largely meant staying out of the way of the sparkling talk. There are few big purely musical moments in Steiner's score, and long stretches of the film play without music. Nevertheless, there are plenty of riches, too. The blaring music for the opening titles, with its Moroccan-tinged theme, is one, but mostly they are quiet and understated.

His skillful interweaving of "As Times Goes By" (not his tune) throughout the score is particularly impressive. It never cloys, is never merely sentimental, partly because of Steiner's contrapuntal mastery but also because the tune is almost never stated without ominous undertones coloring it darkly.

The flashback scene (when Bogart remembers Paris) gave Steiner a moment to shine (much of it is without dialogue) and he provided a lovely, nostalgic whirlwind of a tone poem, complete with a rumba for his principals to dance. There are a number of fine touches of orchestration as well, as when various characters visit Sydney Greenstreet at the Blue Parrot. Steiner uses harp, bells, oboes, bass clarinet and piano to paint in an exotic Moroccan atmosphere.

An interesting touch that one would never catch watching "Casablanca" the regular way: Steiner has the strings of the orchestra softly support Dooley Wilson's band in Rick's, adding a nice shimmer to its sound.

Kaufman, the Pacific Symphony's longtime pops conductor and an old hand with film music, conducted "Casablanca" recently with the Chicago Symphony and will soon take it to Dallas. He wisely cut down the size of the ensemble to that of a studio orchestra, thereby recreating a close facsimile of that famous Warner Bros. Orchestra sound. The opening titles in this performance weren't as brash as the original, but there was, naturally, much more detail and breadth.

That lush detail continued to pay dividends throughout the screening, even as Kaufman made sure that the orchestra never outgunned the dialogue. One occasionally, in fact, wanted the actors to pipe down, so attractive was the orchestra's playing and Kaufman's way with it, so pungent was Steiner's music.

A quibble: The sound of the film itself, heard through speakers hung from the rafters, was less than ideal (canned, harsh). Segerstrom Concert Hall doesn't invariably handle amplified voices well. But that was more than made up for by the communal experience of seeing "Casablanca" again with a large audience. Along with a number of other things, one was reminded of how funny the film is.