Classic Comedy, Classical Accompaniment

The first wacky comedy gag of many at Orchestra New England’s annual Silent Movies Gala occurred when the conductor began his remarks immaculately dressed in a tuxedo—with an accidentally untied bow tie flopping around his neck.

James Sinclair, the founder music director of ONE, soon realized his sartorial disaster, asked for permission to remove the tie, and continued a lively description of pre-“talkie” motion pictures and how, since musicians were usually present to soundtrack them, the films “were never silent.”

Sinclair left the tie off for the rest of the performance, which took place Saturday night at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School. That was fitting, given the lowbrow frivolity of the films the orchestra was accompanying. The Rink featured Charlie Chaplin as a waiter, flinging a cooked chicken around a restaurant and splashing soup on whoever came near him. Haunted Spooks, starring Harold Lloyd, featured several people covered in bedsheets or doused in flour, scaring the bejesus out of each other. The title characters of the 1922 classic Cops chase poor Buster Keaton in and out of alleys, over rooftops, behind grandstands and, in one of the greatest comedy routines in the history of motion pictures, back and forth on a ladder teetering over a fence.

The eight-piece ONE ensemble rose to the challenge of soundtracking all this silliness by mixing operatic refrains (Wagner’s Flying Dutchman overture for a thunderstorm) with pop tunes (Irving Berlin’s “He’s a Rag Picker” to introduce Chaplin’s tramp character) and other classic riffs (Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette, the “Winstons taste good like a cigarette should” jingle). There was even a new composition by Sinclair inserted into the Harold Lloyd haunted-house scenario and titled “Ghost Pants Walking.”

James Sinclair had handpicked the films, provided scholarly background and overseen the musical arrangements he was conducting. But the hardest-working ONE member during the actual performance was percussionist Patrick Smith, who was charged not only with keeping the beat but also providing a slew of sound effects. Aided by his own video monitor and a multi-instrument set-up set apart from the rest of the ensemble onstage, Smith provided taps and thumps to Chaplin’s trademark big-shoe waddle. He blew a slide whistle for pratfalls, and even pulled out an actual slapstick (a loudly clacking bit of wood) to accompany the “slapstick” comedy. When characters were speaking, Smith gave them “voices”—a razzing sound for the villains, sweet bird calls for the young women. The sounds fit flawlessly with the movies being projected directly above the musicians on the stage of the Coop auditorium.

The three comedy shorts, starring the three greatest legends of silent comedy, were bookended by a great comical composer, Felix Arndt. As an overture, ONE played Arndt’s chaotic 1916 “Operatic Nightmare (Desecration No. 2),” which blazes through centuries worth of opera clichés. Following the screenings,  Patrick Smith rolled out a large xylophone and led the ensemble in a tinkly rendition of Arndt’s biggest hit, the 1915 pop instrumental “Nola.”

“We can accompany you,” Sinclair told Smith, “with noises and funny sounds. It’s payback.”

New Haven has a great legacy of silent movie houses. The Little Theater on Audubon Street used to be one. During the late-19th century transition from vaudeville stages and opera houses to nickelodeons and cinemas, there was a motion picture parlor on every block downtown. Even today, the city’s well-outfitted to enjoy silent films. Steve Asetta and his Lyric Hall Theater Orchestra have brought eclectic original live scores to silent film screenings at a Westville venue that was originally built as a cinema in 1920. National modern jazz brass player Dave Douglas has accompanied Fatty Arbuckle comedies at Firehouse 12. For its part, Orchestra New England has been accompanying silent films on and off for much of its 40 year history. Saturday’s show, a fundraiser for the orchestra, was a light and breezy way of celebrating such a versatile local ensemble. ONE does everything from free Memorial Day concerts to recordings of Connecticut composer Charles Ives.

Hats off to them. And clown shoes too. And ghostly bedsheets. And conductor’s bowties.

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