San Francisco Symphony’s live film score of ‘The Little Mermaid’ provides night of luxurious nostalgia

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A grinning man in a lobster-colored suit jacket took his place in a sea of cool, all-black crustaceans. With a roaring round of applause and the flick of a conductor’s wand, the San Francisco Symphony was heeled to play the live film score of “The Little Mermaid” on Friday night at Davies Symphony Hall. The symphony’s resemblance to the opening scenes, wherein Sebastian conducts “Daughters of Triton,” was uncanny.

The experience of a live score is prime moviegoing luxury. It’s summertime indulgence. A dressed-up audience sits in a state-of-the-art, acoustically perfected cave, with a huge screen projected above a full spread of instruments and instrument players. At the head stood conductor Steven Allen Fox. This movie night was maybe five times pricier than a trip to Cinemark, but to hear well-loved songs such as “Kiss the Girl,” “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World” in a world-renowned venue by a world-renowned symphony was a treat reminiscent of the early velvet curtain days of film-watching. Those theaters are like unicorns now, so instead, we had a night at Davies.

There were couples on dates and families with dewy-skinned children, and the entire night was tinged with the Disney movie-magic brand of nostalgia. It’s safe to think that maybe everyone in the audience had seen “The Little Mermaid” in the plush comfort of an at-home sofa or at a backyard lawn screening. When the symphony opened with the Disney theme song and the iconic castle appeared on screen, everything was maximally romantic. Again, the audience erupted into applause.

Moments of intense blast-from-the-past happiness from the audience were common, as jokes on screen were received with overwhelming laughter and performances of famous songs from the film’s score were met with roaring whoops. This may be a rare occurrence in a classical venue, but the concert was meant to be less of an evening of sophistication and more of a memory-making machine. These sounds that hit at the right time in the right way make “The Little Mermaid” timeless.

Whether it was the somatosensory immersion or something regal in the air that tinged everything as a little bit funnier than it is when one is watching movies on a sofa, these details were the success of the night. The twinkle of watching a Disney film was re-simulated in the form of a lavishly rendered version of “Under the Sea” as the on-screen critters absurdly paralleled the professional musicians onstage. The drama of evil witch Ursula and the highs of a white wedding were dissected by this spread of symphonic sections and made an already exceedingly saccharine film even more intense.

For the music lovers, to watch Alan Menken’s score play out in real time, sometimes overpowering the dialogue on screen — in a good way — was to thoroughly dissect all the bells and whistles that go into creating a masterpiece Disney princess film track. Maybe the first orchestral chair looked bored in the polished way first chairs always look bored. But the suspicion was that while it was technically straightforward, performing an iconic score to an adoring audience was a refreshing bit of pop in the season’s schedule.

As the film ended and Ariel rode off into the sunset with her Prince Charming, the orchestra played a few minutes longer, and this was the night’s cherry on top. The audience could just focus on the music with all the good feelings of a happily-ever-after ending, and the sounds of the percussion with sweepingly croony strings was heart-exploding. Those seconds when the art overtook emotion and the sounds were deeply felt came out in a full-house standing ovation. But of course, how could anyone expect anything less?

Contact Alice Dai at [email protected].