Imagine a Venn diagram of silent film buffs, symphony aficionados and fans of the Police. It's a niche demographic, but that appears to have been the audience drawn to this week's performance of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ," the 1925 silent epic with a new score by Police drummer Stewart Copeland.
The Valley Performing Arts Center on the campus of Cal State Northridge wasn't full during Wednesday night's performance, but the crowd was full of life. From the in-your-face rock percussion announcing the familiar MGM lion to the final cymbal echoes ringing over the resurrection finale, Copeland commanded the audience's attention and praise. A potent combination of the film's still-fresh action sequences and Copeland's sweaty, muscular performance couldn't help but overwhelm, even if you weren't enraptured.
Copeland, who has been scoring films since the Police disbanded — with notable early assignments for Francis Ford Coppola ("Rumble Fish") and Oliver Stone ("Wall Street") — first penned music for this "tale of the Christ" in 2009, for a live theatrical re-creation of some of its iconic sequences. He then took the film itself and had it polished to a shine, whittling it down to a tight 85 minutes, and adapted his earlier material into a score, which he premiered two years ago at the Virginia Arts Festival.
While Copeland has earned his badge as a composer, it's his drumstick prowess that takes the spotlight in "Ben-Hur." With his drum kit and jungle of rhythmic toys planted at the front of the stage (showing some mercy to the cellists' cochleas with plexiglass sound walls), it's effectively a concerto for rock drums and orchestra (flawlessly conducted by Richard Kaufman) — to the point where Copeland's arena-style smashing swallowed all but the Pacific Symphony's brass section for long stretches.
"Concerto" gives the wrong idea of form, though. This is programmatic prog rock. A concept album come to life, exploring the exploits of Judah Ben-Hur in a series of melodic ideas firmly rooted in comfortable Western, rock 'n' roll tonality with dashes of Eastern spice.
But it's mostly drums — and aggression. Seemingly innocuous scenes are ratcheted up to hysterics, to the point where the splashy set pieces (namely the pirate attack and chariot race) merely sustained the momentum and attitude that preceded. There was little respite from the assault of the trap set and relentless, masculine energy of Copeland's score, which ultimately wears on the ears and misses out on the power of contrast. It does also run a current of crackling, anachronistic electricity into these images — giving the sepia, centenarian cells a defiant urgency.
When Copeland first bounded on stage, smiling and childlike, he made it clear this would not be a stuffy, formal affair. "When this machine gets rolling," he told the audience, acknowledging the film's more antiquated trappings, "you too will drink the Kool-Aid." Once the smoke cleared after the pirate ship of his brazen, thunderous rock score had rammed into these ancient flickerings of an even more ancient story, it was clear they had. Copeland and the Pacific Symphony will ride the "Ben-Hur" chariot to the orchestra's home turf, the Reneé and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, for a performance Friday night and on Saturday.