Even back in the glory days of silent movie palaces, now almost a century ago, only the most luxurious of cinemas would have fielded an orchestra to accompany the wordless screen action; most had to make do with an organ or piano. What a sublime experience it was to view Charlie Chaplin's masterful 1925 silent comedy The Gold Rush with lush accompaniment by the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday night at the Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall.
The Philharmonic's artistic director, Scott Terrell, conducted Chaplin's own score for the film, composed for its re-release in 1942 and now with updated orchestrations by Timothy Brock specifically for use in live performance. Chaplin's music is charming and sentimental, full of accessible melodies and uncomplicated harmonies, replete with depictive musical gestures broad and subtle.
Chaplin was not above getting laughs by commenting on the narrative action with a wryly placed musical quote, such as Tchaikovsky's famous waltz from The Sleeping Beauty played rapturously when Chaplin's iconic character, The Tramp, encounters his dream girl in a dance parlor, or Flight of the Bumblebee utilized several times throughout the film in moments of mass confusion and consternation.
It should not surprise us that Chaplin, one of film's most revered auteurs as star performer, director and producer of all his own movies, was also a capable musician, largely self-taught on the piano and string instruments. After all, he is the man who composed Smile, one of the most beloved standards in American popular music. And yet to behold visually the riches of his comic and dramatic genius in combination aurally with his own large-scale musical conception of the film is quite overwhelming. What a complete package of superlative creativity was Charlie Chaplin.
The Philharmonic played the score with affection and care, responding to the minutiae of Terrell's wishes skillfully. There were hardly any moments when the live music felt out of synchronization with the onscreen action, and the little punctuating musical gestures often lined up perfectly to excellent effect.
All the sections of the orchestra had chances to shine. The strings sounded warm and rich throughout the performance, and the brass acquitted themselves with grace and subtlety in their very busy parts, full of off-the-cuff solo licks. The woodwinds chattered and chirped cheerfully, adding a lot of spunk and pizzazz to the proceedings, while the harp, keyboards, and percussion lent color and rhythmic verve. Perhaps the cutest moment of the evening was Chaplin's dance at a dinner table, where he used food on cutlery as feet, working them underneath his seemingly disembodied head, while percussionist Jim Campbell provided tap-dancing sounds in perfect synchronicity.
Of course the audience laughed at Chaplin's antics throughout the movie, but they were quieter than they might have been in a normal screening out of respect and admiration for Terrell's and the orchestra's considerable accomplishment in coordinating score to screen with such expressiveness and enthusiasm. The full measure of the crowd's enjoyment came after the film, when they stood and cheered their appreciation in an extended ovation usually reserved for high-powered soloists appearing with the Philharmonic.
Terrell and the orchestra fully deserved the popular success of this undeniably populist event. This is the kind of innovative programming that will build new audiences for Lexington's premier arts organization, by finding new avenues of relevance as a performing body and by exploring less familiar corners of culture only to discover that there is fine music lurking everywhere.