‘Orchestra Offers a Novel View of Music History’ musical is a welcome end to River Shakespeare Festival

This is a masterpiece.

An Orchestra Offers a Novel View of Music History, the musical companion piece to George Orwell’s classic novel “1984,” directed by Deborah Eaton, takes place right after the revolution, just as it’s beginning. The poor, marginalized and downtrodden of “1984” aren’t allowed to join in the revolution, though, so musicians, including the Red Army Marching Band, decide to stick around to play a night in an abandoned building.

The great music done in “1984” featured the snaky synth music, the soaring piano, the trembling strings and the spinning orchestra tuning. These were mostly manufactured in Germany, although the sweeping sections, arranged for left-hand piano, were composed with the same orchestra and orchestrator that ensembles of the era used to experiment and create mini-orchestra arrangements, according to Doug Butler, director of the River Shakespeare Festival.

Based on that picture, which doesn’t tell you much about the many layers of the piece, it’s true: The music and arrangements were mostly composed and arranged in Germany in the 1930s, but the Red Army Marching Band contributed substantially to the music used in the novel. The entire orchestra was on the left hand side of the stage, all together. John Warneke’s conducting style employed the hand drum sound to appeal to the right hand, while everything else sounded like an orchestra playing an a cappella group a cappella, with pianos for whistles and claps. And when they’re not playing, the players look like they’re trying to escape from the palace.

The argument that Communist Russia and its artistic retelling of history weren’t all that different from the American Communist Federal Theatre Association — with all of its theatrical genres, stagings and theatrics — wouldn’t hold up much. After all, we continue to do shows using props and costumes with little to no plot. And we continue to create musical arrangements that all sound like an orchestra. There is such a thing as a technical retelling of history that serves an artistic purpose. There is such a thing as a musical interpretation of history that serves a realistic one. There is such a thing as a banality of perfection of unreality. None of these things “offers” at the moment.


Simply put, “Orchestra Offers a Novel View of Music History” is a masterpiece that integrates music as best as can be imagined with the revolutionary narrative of “1984” and the music that was the hallmark of the music around that time.


The climax, perhaps not wholly inspired, gives the music a festive feel that is appropriate. The original film score created by Elliot Goldenthal and the Red Army Marching Band are included here, and the music is performed by the River Shakespeare Players.


There isn’t a lot of work that can be done to tweak the music (scored by Claude Debussy and Francis Poulenc) to fit well with the show, and it’s disappointing that the orchestra and bells are all done for the lighting designer.


3 1/2 stars

For more information, call the River Shakespeare Festival at 708-851-3417 or visit rivershakes.org.

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