NEW YORK — Bruce Beresford, who wrote and directed "Paradise Road," first heard "vocal orchestra" music on what he describes as "a rather badly recorded tape." It was made at a memorial concert for inmates of the Sumatra prison camp, presented during the late 1980s in Australia, where Beresford hails from. This touched off the interest that would later bear fruit not only in his movie, but also a splendid new CD called "Paradise Road: Song of Survival," released by Sony Classical.
In some respects, the disc's liner notes give a less melodramatic and probably more reliable account of the vocal orchestra's history than the film provides. We learn here that the group only turned to classical music when its repertoire of popular songs ran out. It's also mentioned that the orchestra folded after more than half its members died - a fact not acknowledged by the movie until a printed statement at the very end, which seems to contradict the sentimentalized scene that closes the dramatization itself.
What's most important about the CD is that it spotlights many vocal-orchestra pieces that are submerged by story developments in the movie. The works are performed by the Malle Babbe Women's Choir of Holland, using arrangements made by Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers - the first a Presbyterian missionary, the second an engineer's wife - for the original group they assembled in the prison camp.
Most selections are familiar classics, which makes sense considering that Dryburgh and Chambers had to create their scores entirely from memory. Pieces range from a Beethoven minuet and a Chopin prelude to hits like Ravel's crowd-pleasing "Bolro" and the ever-popular "Londonderry Air."
"The music reinforced our sense of human dignity," writes prison-camp survivor Helen Colijn in the CD's notes. "We could rise above it all. We would struggle on." The music carries that message with undiminished strength.