Arts & Culture

Orchestra season opener brings sound to silent films

By
Contributing Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010

Though entitled “The Silent Years,” the Brown University Orchestra’s 2010-11 season opening concert was anything but. Under the direction of Senior Lecturer in Music Paul Phillips, the orchestra premiered a work by William Perry that accompanied 1920s silent film clips. The Friday and Saturday evening concerts also included works by Samuel Barber and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

 

Scales of sadness

The audience, which filled Sayles Hall both nights, was first treated to Barber’s “First Essay for Orchestra.” According to program notes by Phillips, the piece was selected to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Ascending and descending scales played at a moderate tempo exemplified Barber’s emotional style. Muted trumpets signaled that the end was near, and then the piece came full circle, with violins fading into nothingness. If Barber’s “First Essay” is meant to tell a story, it is clearly one of mystery and sadness.

 

Composer on campus

A screen then descended from the ceiling for the world premiere of Perry’s “The Silent Years: Three Rhapsodies for Piano and Orchestra,” performed with soloist Michael Chertock, a University of Cincinnati piano professor. In remarks to the audience, the composer said “The Silent Years” is “not really a fair name,” since “no film from the very beginning was meant to be seen silently.” Rather, early movies were accompanied by a pianist, small group or full orchestra depending on the size of the city.

As director of music for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Perry composed over 100 scores to accompany silent films from the museum’s archives. These films were broadcast on public television in the 1970s with Perry’s piano accompaniment, introducing new generations to silent films and their music.

For “The Silent Years,” Robert Nowak orchestrated three of Perry’s piano scores for a full ensemble. Joanna Phillips, daughter of the conductor and a film student at Columbia, created abbreviated versions of each movie to be shown during the concert.

The first film, “The Beloved Rogue,” stars John Barrymore as Francois Villon, the medieval French poet and vagabond. Perry’s music closely fit the setting, with regal brass fanfares and a celebratory dance for All Fool’s Day. Much like the first recorded film scores, lush string melodies marked the video’s romantic climax. Chertock’s piano solos were precise and energetic, but his part, made almost completely of broad chords, imitated the orchestra rather than standing out as a virtuosic solo. It was likely a tribute to the small-town cinema pianists charged with providing a score on their own.

Next was “Blood and Sand,” the tragic tale of a matador played by Rudolph Valentino. Perry’s exotic Spanish melodies immediately established the atmosphere of a dramatic bullfight. Though the music did not always fit the excerpts — a piano solo strangely accompanied a scene featuring a harp — the work was a memorable evocation of Spanish culture, particularly the castanet dance.

The third film, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” is a classic of the silent era. Perry’s playful score was enhanced by creative orchestrations, including cymbals to represent a howling blizzard wind and a celesta dance to accompany Chaplin’s character as he manipulates yams as puppets. A scene where The Tramp boils his shoe for Thanksgiving dinner elicited much laughter from the audience, proving that Chaplin’s humor is truly timeless, at least when accompanied by a skillful score.

Perry’s and Barber’s similar orchestrations made for an interesting sequence in the program. “Both Barber and Perry are quintessentially American composers, with Perry one generation later than Barber,” Phillips wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “Although they differ stylistically, both have a certain hard-to-define but nonetheless identifiable ‘American’ quality to their music.” Overall, “The Silent Era” was an enjoyable counterpoint to the more serious works on the program, and it deserves wide orchestral exposure.

 

Homage to Tchaikovsky

After an intermission, the orchestra’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4 in F minor” was a striking change from the convivial film music. Described as “one of the most powerful and enduring Russian symphonic masterpieces” in Phillips’ program notes, the work was composed at a difficult time in Tchaikovsky’s life. He had recently married a former student in what was probably “a rash attempt by Tchaikovsky to hide his homosexuality from a severely intolerant society,” the notes read. While the symphony’s Romantic style bears superficial resemblance to Perry’s movie scores, the work has a consistent undercurrent of anguish and tension.

The lyrical andantino second movement featured a lengthy oboe solo, with the strings echoing its hesitant melody before playing their own heartbreaking theme, based on a descending minor scale. In a concert marked by intense emotions, this famous movement was a dramatic peak, and it showcased the skill of the orchestra’s string players.

Tchaikovsky wrote a frantic allegro for his final movement that gave the orchestra a true workout. Woodwind punctuation alternated with rapid string runs, which the students played flawlessly. The movement built up to a cacophonous climax, with syncopated cymbals and repeated orchestral blasts. According to the program notes, some biographers maintain that “the intense work spent composing the Fourth Symphony was a key factor in Tchaikovsky’s path back from suicidal depression to mental stability.” This theory seems plausible based on the orchestra’s excellent performance.

The weekend’s concerts were an appropriate season opener, exhibiting the full range of emotions that classical music can convey. The program’s main strength lay in the interplay between Perry’s almost happy-go-lucky movie scores and the solemn Barber and melancholic Tchaikovsky. Although each piece utilized similarly lush strings and brass fanfares, the more serious works, especially Tchaikovsky, exhibited a complex tension lurking below their melodies. Nevertheless, Perry’s rhapsodies were strikingly effective at conveying the emotions onscreen, an essential task in the days before spoken dialogue.

Proceeds from the benefit concerts will fund the Brown University Orchestra’s concert tours. The orchestra can next be heard Dec. 3 and 5, when it performs Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 2,” as well as works by Richard Wagner and Maurice Ravel.