‘The Tree of Life’ Unfurls, With a Live Orchestra and Choir


Ronen Givony, who founded the omnivorous concert series Wordless Music, is often surprised that he’s the first to pounce on a new musical opportunity. In 2008, he faced no competition from major orchestras in vying to give the American premiere of a piece by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. And several years ago, he broke out of the pops-like mold of film-soundtrack karaoke with a live performance of the magical Cajun-inspired score for “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Those concerts were little more than a warm-up for Wordless Music’s grandest project yet: a screening of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” with a 100-person orchestra and choir performing the film’s soundtrack of masterworks from the Western canon.

The “Tree of Life” program — which has two performances this weekend in its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — coincides with the 10th anniversary of Wordless Music. Over the past decade, the series has evolved from programs that paired Andrew Bird with Bach to live soundtracks for films like “There Will Be Blood” and “Under the Skin.”

10 Highlights From ‘The Tree of Life’

So far, the screenings have been of 21st-century films with narrative scores written by a single living composer, like Mr. Greenwood or Jon Brion. But “The Tree of Life,” widely considered Mr. Malick’s masterpiece, encompasses the entire history of the universe and features a soundtrack with equal ambition: titanic symphonies of Brahms and Mahler, for example, and sacred works by Berlioz and John Tavener.

In an essay, the New York Times film critic A. O. Scott compared “The Tree of Life” to music, with movements in lieu of acts. “It discloses its meanings through the layering and recasting of themes rather than the linear presentation of action,” he wrote. “And it depends on the contrapuntal arrangement of contrasting ideas: time and eternity; past and present; masculine and feminine; innocence and experience.”

Ryan McAdams, who will conduct the Wordless Music Orchestra this weekend, made a similar comparison. Recalling his first experience with “The Tree of Life,” he said it was most like seeing Wagner’s opera “Parsifal,” which tends to alter how an audience perceives the passage of time.

“All sense of time halts,” Mr. McAdams said. “Suddenly everything becomes very vertical. Then you’re pitched back out into the horizontal experience” of the real world.

If a film on that scale sounds daunting, so, too, has been the yearslong process of bringing the concert version to life. When Mr. Givony, a former grant writer for Lincoln Center, founded Wordless Music, he operated with a D.I.Y. spirit of staging modest evenings of classical music mixed with headliners like Grizzly Bear and Explosions in the Sky.

Then he saw “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and knew right away that he wanted to do a concert of the score with Wordless Music. Once he reached the director, Benh Zeitlin, and his co-composer, Dan Romer, the concert came together quickly.

Photo

Ryan McAdams conducting as “The Tree of Life” unfolds onscreen.

Credit
Joshua Bright for The New York Times

But “where everything with ‘Beasts’ was a gift,” Mr. Givony said, “everything with ‘The Tree of Life’ was a trial.”

He wasn’t able to reach Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor, for nearly two years. And there was no D.I.Y. way to present a concert that called for a cinema screen, full orchestra and choir — not to mention a big enough performance space for those forces. Mr. Givony needed to pitch the concert to co-presenters, who were often unenthusiastic about a film that, in its initial release, sharply polarized audiences.

Planning began in earnest once Mr. Givony spoke with Nicolas Gonda, one of the film’s producers, who along with Mr. Malick and the production team gave the concert his blessing and help. “From a filmmaker’s standpoint, this is extraordinary,” Mr. Gonda said, in particular “to work with a group like this that takes such care.”

Much of the responsibility for that care falls on Mr. McAdams, who as conductor has to be both musically nimble and in sync with the film. He said he tried to avoid what he often sees in live-score performances: extreme precision, with monitors and click tracks.

“It’s just about re-creation at that point,” he said. “I find that unsatisfying.”

He compared his conducting to opera, in which the orchestra is an organic participant in a scene with singers — or, in the case of “The Tree of Life,” actors. Or, better yet, he said, “The film is a concerto soloist that I’m working with.”

Still, there are times when he must follow the music played onscreen during a few of the scenes, as in a sequence in which Brahms’s Fourth Symphony plays on a phonograph while the family eats dinner. “I’m having to replicate Toscanini’s performance, in a way,” Mr. McAdams said with a laugh, referring to the masterful conductor.

When Mr. Givony saw the full Wordless Music performance for the first time at its premiere this summer in Dublin — in particular Berlioz’s Requiem, during the film’s final meditative moments — he said he was in awe.

Despite years of frustration and planning, he added, “I would have worked twice as long on this.”

Wordless Music will scale back a bit for its next film concerts, Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight,” with an emotional score by Nicholas Britell, and Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” which samples light pieces by Handel, Schubert and Mozart.

For now, though, Mr. Givony said he was relieved to be at the end of his “Tree of Life” journey. He added he was glad that the performances were coming now, during the aftermath of a divisive election. He pointed to one of Jessica Chastain’s lines in the film: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

Those words helped him get through a depressive haze last week. And this weekend, he said, “4,000 people are going to hear that, too.”

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