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Friday Night Classics: Ben-Hur – Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Composer and Conductor: Carl Davis
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight


The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) plays light classics every month or so with a variety of themes and conductors. This month it is the turn of Carl Davis to conduct his score to the 1925 silent film, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, directed by Fred Niblo.

Davis has been writing scores for silent movies since he was asked to create music for the Thames Television series, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film which aired in 1980. He continued creating scores for, for example, Napoleon (1927) and, of course, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. And tonight, we are shown the original film – all 141 minutes of it – accompanied by Davis.

But how to review such a performance? Is it the music we are reviewing for its composition and quality of playing? Or maybe the film, over ninety years old and melodramatic as they come? Or is it the whole experience, both audio and visual?

The film had a somewhat chequered history with changes in personnel and spiralling costs. While it was a critical success, it made a loss, although it did help MGM to establish itself as a major player in Hollywood.

Billed as the “film all Christians must see”, Ben-Hur takes place in the Roman empire at the time of Jesus’ life. It has two parallel strands, one that follows the adventures of Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Navarro), a high-born and wealthy Jew whose house falls; and one that follows Jesus’ life as in the gospels. Their paths cross a few times, each with considerable significance to Hur’s story, but the storylines are largely independent.

An accident leads to Ben-Hur’s arrest and he becomes a galley slave. He impresses the admiral, Arrius (Frank Currier) with his attitude and is allowed to be unshackled. In the first of two grand set-pieces, the fleet is attacked by pirates, ships are rammed, the Roman galleys burnt and sunk and many lives are lost. But Ben-Hur saves Arrius and is freed, becoming his adopted son and, coincidentally, a great athlete and champion chariot racer. But Ben-Hur is seeking his family and his search leads to the other big set-piece – the chariot race against his former friend, the Roman Messala (Francis X Bushman). Ultimately, the family Hur are reunited and his leprous mother and sister are cured by Jesus on his way to Calgary.

The film is unashamedly melodramatic and tells the story wellif at times feeling a bit pedestrian. But the chariot race remains thrilling and fast-moving – still a powerful and exciting sequence – assisted in no small part by Davis’ score at that point.

In the film, the religious sequences are in the new Technicolor process in order to make them feel more spiritual. Davis’ score similarly differentiates between the two storylines with motifs helping to maintain a consistency throughout. For the religious aspects, Davis takes as his inspiration the Dresden Amen, which resonates each time it reappears emphasising and re-emphasising the sacred elements. For the Ben-Hur’s own story, Davis uses different motifs for the main characters, weaving them together, as well as themes for the big set-pieces. The moods evoked by the music perfectly match the action and, while the music does not try to synchronise with every blink and gesture, it does complement the action effectively. And Davis the maestro is at the centre making sure that synchronicity is complete like a latter-day Prospero orchestrating the great storm in The Tempest. Of course, Davis is helped enormously here by the first-rate musicians of the CBSO. Their music flows out of the stage and over the audience carried by the stupendous acoustics of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall.

So a three-way partnership between Niblo’s film, Davis’ score and the CBSO’s peerless playing that makes a whole that is so very much more than the sum of its parts; yes, the film is sometimes a bit creaky, but the whole is well worth the effort – a rewarding night at the movies.

Reviewed on 13 May 2016 | Image: Contributed

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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