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Musical 'mad scientists' present 'Frankenstein'

Conductor Dan Kocurek and the “mad scientists” of the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band, cobbling together various “parts” and employing the power of electricity, will bring Frankenstein to life this weekend.

It all will happen at the band’s groundbreaking first concert of the 2019-20 season when Kocurek conducts Michael Shapiro’s score for a screening of the cult-classic 1931 gothic horror film “Frankenstein” at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3, in the Southern Oregon University Recital Hall, 450 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland.

“I only found out about the score in August,” Kocurek said.

He already had the skeleton of a program in mind and discovered information about the “Frankenstein” score when browsing the web for fill-in ideas. The band has traditionally performed a Halloween-themed concert in October, but the hall wasn’t available then. He thought the scary movie performance sounded like fun and would make the Halloween fans happy.

So, he scrapped his original plans and programmed the film instead. For the performance, the house will be dark for optimum viewing conditions, and the musicians will have stand lights.

The band will play a short overture that includes the score’s main themes. Then they’ll transition to the score as the film begins. The program is 70 minutes long.

The original 1931 film, starring horror icon Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, has no music. The technology to layer a score under the dialogue did not exist then.

Shapiro fell in love with the film when he first saw it as a kid during a late-night “Million Dollar Movie” on television.

In an interview last year in the Dallas (Texas) Observer, Shapiro told why he composed the score. It’s not a silent film, but there is a lot of quiet in between lines. For him, the silence is a blank canvas just begging to be painted by a seasoned composer. Shapiro has written in many forms, including operas, symphonies, concerti, chamber music, choral music, solo piano works and film scores.

“Music is essential in film,” he told the Observer. “Having a film without music just doesn’t resonate.”

He was commissioned in 2001 by The Chappaqua Orchestra’s Boris Koutzen Memorial Fund to write the movie score. It had its world premiere with live orchestra and film in 2002 at Lincoln Center. He transcribed it for band shortly thereafter.

Kocurek negotiated a partnership with the SOU Wind Ensemble through David Humphrey of the Oregon Center for the Arts to pool resources for sheet music and production costs for the season.

“It’s a one-year experiment,” Kocurek said. “SOU students will have opportunities to perform with RVSB members at our concerts.”

Kocurek secured a license to show the film to the public and rented the sheet music. He’s purchasing a copy of the film with subtitles. He wants to make sure the dialogue is clear in case there are spots where the music makes it difficult to hear.

“Shapiro recommended one person per part, but we’re doubling on some,” he said. “For this concert only, there will be about 30 in the band.”

Kocurek said the score is not synced perfectly, so it’s adaptable to the styles of many conductors.

The score is marked to keep Kocurek on point as the film rolls. “There are cues like, ‘undertaker starts walking’ and ‘man hanging,’ ” he said.

Tickets are $8 for students, $12 for adults and $10 for seniors. They’re available online at roguevalleysymphonicband.org as well as at Paddington Station and the SOU box office, 491 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland.

The RVSB will perform two additional concerts this season, with the full band on stage. A Feb. 9 concert, “Wonder,” features music that Kocurek describes as “fantastical” and “magical.” And on Mother’s Day, May 10, “Genesis, Bringers of Life” celebrates women.

“The February concert is a selfish endeavor,” Kocurek said. “It includes all the pieces I’ve always wanted to conduct.”

A soprano vocalist will be featured on one piece. “It will bring down the house,” Kocurek promised. “Gwen Hutchings will play an extended clarinet solo on another. And during the concert, we’ll have everything from tuned wine glasses to whirled tuned tubes.”

The Mother’s Day concert features a program entirely written by women composers.

“We’ll have the world premiere of a movement of a new symphony by the Valley’s own Chelsea Williamson,” Kocurek said. “She wrote it for her doctoral thesis.” Williamson is the fiancée of Rogue Valley Symphony music director Martin Majkut.

All concerts start at 3 p.m. For more details, see the RVSB website.

Jim Flint is a freelancer writer living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Dan Kocurek conducts the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band, which launches its 30th season with "Frankenstein." Photo by Christopher Briscoe
Dan Kocurek conducts the Rogue Valley Symphonic Band in a rehearsal of a score written in 2002 for the 1931 Boris Karloff film, “Frankenstein.” The film running on the laptop beside him helps Kocurek fine-tune the timing of the music to the action. Screening of the film with the band playing the score is the first concert of the wind ensemble’s 2019-20 season. Photo by Jim Flint