How the first ‘Call Me by Your Name’ concert came to Manila

Paolo Abad

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How the first ‘Call Me by Your Name’ concert came to Manila
The Manila Symphony Orchestra plays the soundtrack of 2017’s hit queer romance ‘Call Me by Your Name’ – Psychedelic Furs, Italo disco and all – live!

MANILA, Philippines – Call Me by Your Name was such a surprise runaway hit when it hit cinemas in 2017. A sensual, ravishing glimpse of a summer romance set in the idyllic northern Italy of the ‘80s, Luca Guadagnino’s film captured audiences not only with its sumptuous images but also with its soundtrack.

The music is also the indispensable half – even possibly the heart – of the film.

Based on the André Aciman novel of the same name, the 2017 romance stars Timothée Chalamet in the role of 17 year-old Elio, the introspective teenage son of an archaeology professor. Opposite him is Armie Hammer, who portrays the Roman god-like dreamboat Oliver, the graduate assistant to Elio’s father for that one delirious summer. (READ: ‘Call Me By Your Name’ review: Romantic ambiguity)

“The movie gets its title from a scene where Elio and Oliver literally exchange names, as though to annihilate any boundary between them. Its soundtrack translates that electricity, of worlds colliding, into music,” noted Judy Berman in her review of the soundtrack for Pitchfork.

Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom/Sony Pictures Classics

Often slumped over the piano or a table with sheet music, Elio has always been that brooding boy who finds himself feverishly smitten with Oliver. Throughout Oliver’s brief stay with them, the film navigates Elio’s intense desire – and later, intimacy and grief.

A mix of piano solos and ’80s pop standards, the soundtrack to the movie explores Elio’s psyche in this sort of coming of age for him – as he moves from infatuation to heartbreak. So, in a way, the music of the film is essentially a language that his emotions take. (READ: Love, lust, and loss in ‘Call Me By Your Name’)

For the first time ever, the Manila Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Arturo Molina, brought this eclectic collection of songs to the live stage – kitschy Italo disco tracks, tearjerking Sufjan Stevens originals, and all.

CC: Concepts, a company known for their work in Manila’s nightlife scene, brought the world premiere to Manila in a concert held last October 28, Sunday, at the Samsung Hall in SM Aura Premier.

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Live, for the first time

“The key to the live entertainment space, like many other industries, is about timing,” Katrina Razon, the creative director of CC: Concepts, told Rappler via email.

An entrepreneur and DJ like most of her fellow founding partners, Razon said, “Some of the advantages of working in the music industry for over a decade are the network we’ve built and the relationships we’ve formed.”

“Earlier this year, when the exciting opportunity of Call Me By Your Name in concert came across our desks we immediately jumped on it,” she said. “We wanted to position CC: Concepts as the first brand in the world to produce the live film concert of Luca Guadagnino’s beloved film by buying the rights of the film.”

“It was the only time that we could pull it off while riding the wave of the critical and cultural success of the film.”

MAESTRO. Prof. Arturo Molina conducts the Manila Symphony Orchestra, ensuring that image and sound are in perfect conjunction during the live screening and concert of ‘Call Me by Your Name’. Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Mikail Schemm, the musical director and one of the company’s founding partners, meanwhile said that the concept came to them as a natural expansion of their entertainment offerings.

“The movie came into, let’s say, our field of view because we knew [that] it got a lot of attention internationally for the story, obviously, but also the soundtrack because it was a great mix of classical music with pop music,” Schemm explained to Rappler in an interview prior to the concert.

In the clubbing scene, they are recognized for their live electronic music series UNKNWN, which has featured the likes of Jamie xx (from The xx) and soon, English electronic producer Four Tet.

It could be called a transition to classical (albeit popular) material, but for Samantha Nicole, the company’s production director and another co-founder, it was still a “natural” one.

“I think it was natural for us because we’re very passionate with music, events, and providing a different experience for our audience,” said Nicole, who added that it was an opportunity “to add culture to the spectrum.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

Razon echoed this, saying, “Since we all have worn every hat imaginable in the music industry, it was a seamless transition into producing a larger-scale event involving the Manila Symphony Orchestra.”

“We love what we do because not only are we constantly learning every day, but we are engaging a community in new ways,” she said.

Schemm added, “It was sort of the next step. We wanted to sort of figure out what we could add or where we could expand or branch out into.”

“This just all sort of fell into place where we thought that this might just be a good new concept to introduce to the Philippines because obviously, film is very big here. The music is a big part of the culture here as well. So you combine those two things in a new format, and I guess we’re testing it out for the first time.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

So, why Call Me by Your Name?

Although the film depicts queer love and sexuality, for Schemm, it is still a “universal love story.”

“There were other movies that were considered and that I knew were available, but this just felt like the right one,” he said. “All of us at CC: Concepts really loved the movie, and obviously, in this industry there’s always a big amount of passion involved as well.”

“It wasn’t expected that it would be such an international hit, and the fact that it reached that point, it’s pretty [much] already an instant classic, a cult [favorite]… an instant queer film classic that made waves everywhere. Coupled with the music… the significance of both of it together is what made us choose this movie.”

“Since the concept of a film concert is very new to the Filipino market, we could not have thought of a better film than to launch with Call Me By Your Name with the Manila Symphony Orchestra,” said Razon. “It’s tender, hilarious and beautifully relatable.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

In a grander scale

From the brisk and enchanting first movement of John Adams’s “Hallelujah Junction” for two pianos, to Sufjan Steven’s plaintive “Visions of Gideon,” the soundtrack could still tell Elio and Oliver’s story on its own, if it was merely played in a concert. Each piece can convey the narrative, as well as the different emotions displayed onscreen.

“Part of the reason as to why we chose Call Me By Your Name is because despite the film’s hyper-articulate characters, the music magically becomes the ‘narrator,’” said Razon, echoing Guadagnino himself. 

But it’s quite refreshing to listen to the swelling strings, the expressive piano, or the distinct banjo add a new flourish to Call Me by Your Name.

It’s not that it was necessary. It’s not even like how it was done with the silent films of yore. But it’s a richer experience altogether because of it.

In the concert, neither the orchestral accompaniment nor the moving image take a backseat. While restructured to take place across two acts, it’s still the same movie that has enraptured audiences across the globe, screened in its entirety.

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

However, a good number of the tracks that are heard throughout the film have sparse instrumentation.

Piano is used extensively: the John Adams opus heard in the opening credits, the Johann Sebastian Bach cantata “Zion hört die Wächter singen,” the works of early 20th century composers Erik Satie (“Sonatine bureaucratique”) and Maurice Ravel (“Une barque sur l’océan” and “Le jardin féerique”), and Ryuichi Sakamoto compositions “M.A.Y. in the Backyard” and “Germination” (from the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence).

Sufjan Stevens’s original songs for the film, “Visions of Gideon” and the Oscar Best Original Song contender “Mystery of Love,” plus a piano rework of The Age of Adz (2010) track “Futile Devices” are folksy and minimal. They’re more akin to his latest record, Carrie & Lowell, and unlike the grandiose and lush stylings of Michigan and Illinois, or even the electronic-heavy Age of Adz.

On the other hand, the ‘80s jams are synth-heavy – including those by European popsters Marco Armani (“È la Vita”), F.R. David (“Words”), Loredana Bertè (“J’adore Venise”), Franco Battiato (“Radio Varsavia”), Italo disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder (“Lady Lady Lady”), and of course, the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way.”

Photo by Lucas Samonte/CC: Concepts

So apart from being a live performance, the concert also departs from the original material because of the orchestral arrangement. 

String passages are added and synchronized with the hit tunes and their original vocals. Riffs or musical movements are played during scenes where these previously didn’t appear.

“Music done for the movies can either be constructive or destructive. That will really depend on the audience. So, it’s pretty much a subjective experience for the listener and the moviegoer,” said the banjo player for the concert, Lester Demetillo, in Rappler’s interview with some members of the Manila Symphony Orchestra.

Concertmaster Gina Medina-Perez added, “What made it interesting with the orchestra is the added color. Aside from the piano standing out, the music, now that you have the orchestra – the strings, the banjo, and the guitar – it added spark and I think it complemented the movie. It made it more alive.”

Demetillo also suggested that the arranger (in this case, Thiago Tiberio) has a different perspective on how the music in the scene can play out.

“That kind of artistry or leeway or that privilege of combining these different colors — as Gina [put it] — will really be up to the arranger and the composer,” he said.

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

For example, in the infamous peach scene where Franco Battiato’s “Radio Varsavia” just softly plays on the radio in the background, the strings soar here and crescendo as Elio orgasms. This iconic moment in the movie is lurid as it is, but as CC: Concepts’ Schemm said, “I think the effect of orchestra and just strings heighten emotions so much more.”

There’s also the added layer of each performer’s own perspective and experience.

Violinist Alfie Encina said, “When I watched the movie, I didn’t think about how did the music go, or how was it recorded. Playing it makes me look at [it from] a different angle.”

Encina even shared his thoughts on a personal favorite: John Adams’ “Hallelujah Junction” in the introduction. He said, “I interpret it as very thematic because at first, it’s just one pianist, then there comes along a second pianist. So, it’s really interesting.”

Performing it live, while ensuring that every musical motif or piece is in sync with the image, is also an enormous technical feat.

For pianist Jaydee de Ocampo-Lalic, this was “challenging.” During one amusing scene, her piano solos were highlighted as Elio plays a Bach cantata in different ways.

“I needed to watch some of the clips just to get the right interpretation,” she said. “Even how the character plays it in the video, I really needed to study it just to be able to give justice [to the movie performance.]”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

For everyone

Call Me by Your Name’s soundtrack is an assortment of pieces from the classical canon and contemporary masters, as well as ’80s New Wave and Italo disco legends.

It’s also reflective of Elio’s character, a classically trained musician who happens to be – safe to say – a Talking Heads fan (peep his t-shirt in the film).

However, there’s also a lingering outdated belief that the two are polar opposites in terms of cultural value: that one is high art while the latter is lowbrow. This is one barrier that the production company wanted to break.

Nicole said, “There is a connotation in this country that it’s too highbrow when they think about orchestra or theater. I think this is an opportunity for a lot of people to experience and to remove that connotation — in a way — that it’s not just for older people, or it’s not just for titas and titos, or those who are more sophisticated or what.”

“I think it has changed already,” said Demetillo. “That’s actually the argument of the old-timers because the old-timers probably didn’t want the new music to come in, or probably they couldn’t understand.”

As a performer, no distinction is made, said Perez-Medina, “I treat music the same way. I give the same energy and the same commitment. So with music, whether it’s classical or it’s pop, or jazz. You give them your full attention.”

The filmmaker himself, Luca Guadagnino, spoke to Pitchfork reflects this sort of sentiment.

“I don’t think that Elio, being the bright young man who wants to be a great pianist, who is invested in culture because he lives in a world of culture, has learned that culture is an elitist thing that shuts off everything else and only gives life to just the high art,” he said.

“I think what he has learned, as a kid interested in culture, is that culture is the complex element that makes our life what it is, which includes everything. A speech. The body of someone you desire. The music of the Talking Heads. The leaves on a tree. Everything.”

Photo by Paolo Abad/Rappler

While some have contempt for – or are intimidated by the preconceived notion that classical music is only for an elite few, the modern classics from video games and films can actually be a “gateway,” said a thinkpiece in The Guardian.

Schemm also noted that collaborations between non-classical artists and orchestras have happened, but added that it’s not as “accessible to a younger crowd” as in other parts of the globe.

“I think that us doing it also, that was a big motivation: to open this side of the music spectrum to younger people and make them understand that […] it’s something open to everyone,” he said.

“We hope that for many, many of the first-timers of hearing an orchestra —I think —[who are] a lot of the guests who are coming. I just hope it opens their field of vision a bit, to push them to explore more of this modern classical music, if you like.”

“The impeccable combination of mixing pop music with classical music of Call Me By Your Name opens the doors to a wider audience,” said Razon. “We want to make it as accessible as possible to everyone. After all, music is about breaking boundaries that typically set us all apart.” 

BRAVO. CC: Concepts’ partners (L-R: Mikail Schemm, Celine Ferros, Samantha Nicole, and Emel Rowe) pose for a photo op with the Manila Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Lucas Samonte/CC: Concepts

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Paolo Abad

Paolo Abad writes, edits, and shoots for a living. He is one of the founding partners of the online radio platform Manila Community Radio.