Czech, please

The Valerie Project at the Museum of Fine Arts, April 5, 2008
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  April 8, 2008
DREAM POEM: The Valerie Project accompanied Jaromil Jires’s “surreal and uninformative” Czech
New Wave film.

Faced with the task of supplying a live score for a film, an ensemble can proceed one of two ways. They can study its story, following its narrative like the gestures of a conductor, scrutinizing its nuances and attempting to transfer the very color and light of the projection right into the music. Or they can just, you know, jam in front of a movie and force people to watch. With Philadelphia’s Valerie Project, you get a little bit of both, and though their performance Saturday at the MFA was often disconcerting, it was rarely disappointing.

Cobbled together from luminaries of Philadelphia underground folk outfits Espers, Fern Knight, and Fursaxa, the Project set out to score Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a baroque-folk “dream poem” of the Czech New Wave by director Jaromil Jires dating from 1970 and neatly championed by the ensemble as “surreal and uninformative.” Rather than running roughshod with the film’s precariously open interpretations, they took pains to keep things dynamic. You could hear the glimmering waters of the village fountain in Mary Lattimore’s harp, the sinister growl of the lecherous priest in Helena Espvall’s low cello moans, and, always, the tiny twinkling rattle of Valerie’s pilfered earrings — the film’s central image. Here and there, the score grew misleadingly intense — a churning, brooding march that often didn’t complement the sun-dappled delicacies of the film’s milieu. You half expected Valerie to stop kissing doves and start taking out terrorist hijackers.

Of course, the complaint that the Valerie Project might have brought a bit more subtlety to their approach could as easily (if belatedly) be levied against the film’s director. There’s nothing too subtle about a weasel ravaging a henhouse, drops of menstrual blood flecking a daisy, or descriptions of Valerie as an “unsplit pomegranate.” This, however, was meant as a sensory experience, a removal of both the film and the audience from their normal contexts. If the audience members were often scratching their heads, at least they were never plugging their ears.

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