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Alain Barker
Jacobs School of Music

Jon Vickers
Indiana University Cinema

Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011

IU Cinema to present silent film 'Metropolis' accompanied by Jacobs student salon orchestra

Feb. 16, 2011

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University graduate student Nick Hersh figures he's seen the classic silent film Metropolis (1927) somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 40 times.

Metropolis Orchestra Practice

IU student Nick Hersh conducts a pit orchestra rehearsal for "Metropolis," a silent film with orchestral accompaniment, Feb. 13 at the IU Cinema.

Print-Quality Photo

It's not that Hersh is a rabid fan of dystopian science-fiction, though he appreciates the Fritz Lang-directed movie and its powerful orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz.

The repeated viewings were necessary for the conducting project entrusted to Hersh, an orchestral conducting student in the Jacobs School of Music. This weekend he will conduct a 17-member student orchestra at the theatrical re-release of the groundbreaking epic Metropolis, IU Cinema's first world premiere.

While Metropolis has been screened in recent years with a full, 60-piece orchestra, the screenings on Feb. 19 and 20 (both are sold out) will feature the film's first newly arranged orchestral score for a salon orchestra.

Metropolis tells the vivid story of a futuristic city segregated into "thinkers" and "workers" and the boundary-breaking relationship that leads to a worker uprising.

"The potential of doing world premieres here is a real honor," said Jacobs School Dean Gwyn Richards. "This is a wonderful opportunity for our students."

"Finding time for students to do something this extensive can be a challenge," said IU Cinema Director Jon Vickers. "In the future, we hope to build it into the curriculum. Metropolis is a two-hour film, so it's as ambitious as an opera."

The IU Cinema screening will re-create the director's original vision, reinserting the 25 minutes of "lost footage" that was cut by Paramount for the U.S. release in 1927. In what was called the "film find of the century," the lost footage was re-discovered in 2008, in a small museum in Buenos Aires. Sound reinforcement for the production will be provided by the Jacobs School of Music's Department of Recording Arts.

"I've studied the score with the movie playing a lot to get it all in my head," said Hersh, who studies orchestral conducting with Professor David Effron and Professor Arthur Fagen. "The score by Gottfried Huppertz, who was heavily influenced by Richard Wagner, is really incredible. He uses musical ideas to coordinate with the film, to lead the audience through the story."

Hersh said he will not make use of old-fashioned click tracks, which musicians for silent films once used as audio cues; instead, the score includes brief written descriptions of what's happening on screen at certain points in the film to keep the music on track. The movie will be projected on a small video monitor adjacent to his score in the IU Cinema's orchestra pit. Since he took on the project in October, Hersh said he has spent between 10-20 hours a week studying and organizing, with six group rehearsals leading up to the performances this weekend.

Tom Wieligman, executive administrator of special performance activity at the Jacobs School, was first presented with the idea of having students score and perform along with the film in the fall. Once he had talked to Hersh, the two discussed which students would be a good fit for the project. Taking part in the Metropolis orchestra is somewhat uncharted territory for the Jacobs School, Wieligman said. "It's not part of the students' orchestral curriculum -- it's a professional engagement," he said.

Hersh had previously studied Metropolis in a humanities class (with a focus on the score) during his undergraduate career at Stanford University, so the project seemed like a good fit for him.

"The first thing we see with Nick is his enthusiasm," Wieligman said. "He's absolutely 100 percent invested in this. The next quality you can see is his thought process in action. He's breaking the situation down, figuring out how to make it work better. He's really a student of the arts."

Metropolis Orchestra Practice

The 17-member salon orchestra rehearses for this weekend's "Metropolis" performance.

Print-Quality Photo

Concertmaster for the Metropolis performances is IU sophomore violinist Michael Acosta, a student of Jacobs Professor Alexander Kerr (Linda and Jack Gill Chair in Music). "I'm enjoying the sound of the music. It's a lot more old-fashioned than what I usually play -- it goes with the feeling of the time of the movie."

At a Metropolis dress rehearsal on Feb. 13, Jacobs student musicians filled the hallway by the IU Cinema's small orchestra pit with the sounds of practicing. Some texted, some chatted as they waiting for the cue to file in and begin.

The keyboard player took his seat in the darkened pit as the bass player squeezed in the door and gingerly brought his instrument up the row of stairs leading to the pit. The back row of performers triple checked their chairs to be sure they wouldn't topple backward off the small stage.

"We're going to be doing a little gag that's involved with tuning," Hersh told the assembled musicians. "The IU Cinema was recently THX certified …" He then led the group through the gradually swelling sounds that accompany the "THX certified" logo at the movies.

Once everyone had stand lights, the run-through began. "OK, everyone ready?" asked Hersh, adding jokingly, "Cell phones off?" Rehearsal went smoothly, though the small screen with the video on it wasn't hooked up yet, so Hersh had to look for cues high up on a screen above the pit. The film was rolling at a faster frame rate than was previously rehearsed, and the tempo was different from what will be presented at the performances Saturday and Sunday. These minor rehearsal glitches were expertly adjusted by Manny Knowles, technical manager of the IU Cinema, and his dedicated staff, composed of students of the Department of Recording Arts.

Wieligman, whose role is to ensure the overall artistic quality of this production, is confident that Hersh is the perfect student conductor for the job. "We couldn't have picked a better guy. He's absolutely perfect for this project, and he loves films."

For more information about IU Cinema, see