ASR Theater ~~ Sounds of the Whale: “Moby Dick” at Stanford

By Jeff Dunn

In 2009, blogger Eric Lanke reported after his sixth full reading of Moby Dick that “the novel is clearly a White Whale in and of itself, denying in its aloofness our attempts to define and understand it.”

This year, yet another Ahab is trying to figure out the monster: filmmaker Wu Tsang. She and her collective have created a 75-minute film that requires a live-orchestra accompaniment. Released early this year, it has graced many venues from Zurich to Sydney.

Her interpretations of 20 or so chapters of the book’s 136 are beautiful, challenging, and complex. The work has already moved on to L.A. after a single performance at Stanford on November 8th—I will not provide an overall review. (An excellent one by Duncan Stuart is here:

 … beautiful, challenging, and complex …

Instead, the question: Is a movie with live music better than one with a soundtrack? In the case of Wu Tsang’s Moby Dick, or The Whale at Stanford’s Bing Auditorium, both were a part of the production, and can be compared. Live music by the New Century Chamber Orchestra was the winner.

Reasons were many:

Number one was the natural string-section acoustics that no electronic version could match. Talkies were the death knell of pianos, organs and orchestras that used to accompany films in the 1920s. Lip synching and the removal of intertitles increased realism and audience engagement, trumping any concerns about the degradation of acoustic quality. On November 3, 1987 however, musical immediacy was restored when Andre Previn and the L.A. Philharmonic accompanied Eisenstein’s subtitled film Alexander Nevsky with Prokofiev’s original music for it. Since then, particularly in the last 15 years “live to projection” concerts have become an audience hit. Improved technologies have made the process considerably easier to produce.

Number two was the quality of the string music itself, composed by Caroline Shaw and Andrew Yee. Never did it distract from the action on screen, but often its subtleties enhanced the emotionality of the moment. I was particularly impressed by the hymn-like effect of the music for Tsang’s interpretation of the “Cabin-table” chapter, where Ahab presided over dinner with his officers “like a mute, maned sea lion.” Also, in the “Queequeg in his coffin” chapter, glissandi in the basses and cellos struck me with eerie effect. My only disappointment in the music was when it had to accompany nearly 10 minutes of credits at the end. That was the time when the banality of the proceedings on screen demanded something more alluring to the ear.

Number three was the superb conducting by Christopher Rountree and faultless intonation of the 18 members of the chamber ensemble. Number four was the acoustics of the Bing, enhanced by the giant whale shape gracing its ceiling.

Number five was one of the worst defects of the film: the soundtrack itself. Acoustically, like so many tracks in theaters today, it was loud and woofer-heavy. This was okay for some of the mysterious electronica added by Asma Maroof, but it undercut the frequent voice-overs and lips-synchs by collective member Fred Moten, who plays a somewhat audience-confusing, non-Melvillian character called the Sub-Sub-Librarian. According to Tsang, this person magically “tackles the novel’s subterranean currents” while living in a library inside the whale.

From time to time, Moten recites Melville or Moten’s own poetry. Unfortunately, his words are not subtitled; this reviewer found about half of them unintelligible and not favored by the recording. The result is inadequately justified confusion that can distract from the work’s many other strengths — including, of course, the on-stage music.

When Tsang produces a commercial video of her mostly wonderful and stimulating film, some of the lovely live-music qualities will no doubt be lost, but at least, I hope, more sense will be made of the “subterranean” mariner.


ASR’s Classical Music Section Editor Jeff Dunn is a retired educator and project manager who’s been writing music and theater reviews for Bay Area and national journals since 1995. He is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the National Association of Composers, USA. His musical Castle Happy (co-author John Freed), about Marion Davies and W.R. Hearst, received a festival production at the Altarena Theater in 2017. His opera, Finding Medusa, with librettist Madeline Puccioni, was completed in January 2023. Jeff has won prizes for his photography, and is also a judge for the Northern California Council of Camera Clubs.

ProductionMoby Dick; or 'The Whale'
Based on the book byHerman Melville
Directed byWu Tsang
Producing CompanySchauspielhaus Zurich
Production DatesThru Nov 8th
Production AddressBing Concert Hall, Stanford CA 94305
(650) 724-2464
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----