San Francisco Symphony bring nostalgia with ‘Love Actually’

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There’s something quintessentially Christmasy about “Love Actually.” In the early 2000s classic, director Richard Curtis draws together a star-studded cast and plot filled with just enough sentimental dialogue to leave viewers reaching for their hankies. Throughout the film, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley and the rest of the cast — pictured in the peak of their youth — make their own separate yet intimately connected ways across London a month before Christmas Day. With about 10 intertwining stories, the plot stays fresh and covers all sorts of love stories framed in the holiday setting. Sixteen years after its production, the film remains a well-known Christmas classic, with each viewing evoking pure nostalgia. 

The film’s music contains a masterful combination of now-dated 2000s pop songs, older ballads and emotional orchestral pieces by Craig Armstrong. The works of Dido, Joni Mitchell, the Pointer Sisters and Norah Jones join hands to support the film’s characters through their complicated relationships. The Davies Symphony Hall was filled with the music of “Love Actually” on Dec. 18, as the San Francisco Symphony continued its concert film series. Playing for two nights, the symphony brilliantly communicated the spirit of “Love Actually” while providing a new dimension to the score and soundtrack of the film. 

Conductor Thiago Tiberio led the orchestra through interjected musical passages from the film as it was projected onto a large screen above the stage. 

The performance was pleasantly interactive from the get-go; the orchestra’s first down stroke ushered in the theme from Universal Pictures, and as the film company’s signature globe expanded on the screen, the audience let out a collective laugh. The night was set up to be an enjoyable experience, as the film was additionally accompanied by the audience’s constant laughter and collective jitters whenever a fan-favorite scene approached. The entire time, the orchestra played along with the film in a delicate manner, never seeking to take the limelight away from the images or story. Only during one scene did the orchestra completely overpower the dialogue, although this may have been a contextual and censorial decision to keep the film steered in a family-friendly direction. The audience laughed it off, however, as they seemed to know the dialogue in the entirety of its British-humored vulgarity. 

The relationship between orchestra and film was well fleshed out, a change from the Symphony’s usual commanding presence onstage. The Symphony’s film series introduced a different, more casual way of enjoying live orchestral music. Its performance of “Love Actually” demonstrated how the Symphony is composed of dynamic musicians who can master any type of music, even if it’s a sappy pop song to go with a rom-com flick. While it was amusing to hear the world-renowned orchestra to play “Puppy Love” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” the performance of Armstrong’s score elevated the film to its emotional peak. The more moving passages, such as when solo Jamie (Colin Firth) looks woefully from his house after the end of his marriage or when Sarah (Laura Linney) has to choose family over love, called for a sweeping piano that invoked the cellos to tenderly follow suit. The perfectly victorious suite that neared the end of the film paired perfectly with the time-old classic scene of characters running through airports, tiny Portuguese towns and school stages to win their loves over. Bringing together the entire orchestra, Tiberio conducted broadly and built a base of sound that reverberated from the guitars in the back to the flutes in the front and out to the audience. Not a single eye was left dry, as the film was truly brought to life by the Symphony’s passion in its playing. Finishing out with “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, the whole hall erupted with smiles, many audience members turning to their loved ones beside them. 

The two nights of “Love Actually” had the whole Symphony Hall adorned with large Christmas trees on every floor, themed cardboard cut-out photo booths and an overall sense of lighthearted festivity. The celebrated film and the dynamic symphony were harmoniously married, creating a memorable evening to introduce the holiday season. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].