Orchestra New England Can-Cans, Foxtrots, And Waltzes To Silent Movies

Charlie Chaplin gracefully skated around a roller rink, turning a comic chase into slapstick ballet. Buster Keaton played 20 different characters in the same show within a dream within a theater within a film. On Sunday afternoon, Orchestra New England treated New Haven audiences to two highlights from the silent film era, Charlie Chaplin’s The Rink (1916) and Buster Keaton’s The Play House (1921), animating each film with authentic live musical accompaniment.

Thomas Breen PhotoOne of the handful of film-related events featured in this year’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas, Orchestra New England’s silent movie concert offered the crowded auditorium at the Cop-op Arts and Humanities High School on College Street a diversity of entertainment, from family-friendly laughs to historically accurate sounds to a rare opportunity to remember and celebrate the comic genius of two seminal figures from the early years of the movies.

“We’re really going back in time,” he said, “and you’re going to hear and see an event that could have happened in 1925, or way back. We start with an overture, as they always did then. If you really like opera, we’re going to ruin a piece by Verdi for you, a foxtrot version of ‘Il Travatore,’” said conductor James Sinclair, who founded the New Haven-based orchestra over 40 years ago.

As Sinclair raised his baton, the tuxedo-clad musicians behind him broke into a raucous rendition of the “Anvil Chorus,” its iconic melody emerging with madcap energy amid the foxtrot’s accelerated tempo, shuffling rhythm, and persistent cowbell.

The concert maintained this boisterous tone as it segued into The Rink, a 20-minute silent short that Orchestra New England had performed before in town and now gave a welcome reprise. The film features Charlie Chaplin as an impertinent waiter who spends his breaks at a nearby skating rink. In 1916, the 27-year-old Chaplin was only two years into his film career, but had already established himself as the most celebrated (and highest paid) actor in show business. The Rink lacks some of the emotional appeal of Chaplin’s most affecting work, but it abounds in the charming rebelliousness, class-conscious antics, and perfectly-orchestrated physical comedy that helped establish the silent comedic short as a beloved and respected art form.

The orchestra opened with Irving Berlin’s “He’s a Rag Picker,” a whimsical, strolling melody overlaid with twittering birdsong, chiming bells, and an incoherent squawking meant to simulate speech. These were just a few of the many sound effects that percussionist Patrick Smith deployed over the course of the afternoon, living up to the silent movie drummer’s responsibility of creating a comic, “realistic” sonic space, perfectly timed with both the antics in the film and with the orchestra’s music.

As Chaplin waddled, fought, and danced his way across the screen, moving from a combative kitchen to a tumultuous skating party, the musicians captured his graceful physical presence on wheels with Émile Waldteufel’s “Skater’s Waltz,” underscored throughout by the stumbling roll of the snare and the heavy thud of the bass drum to accent every collision and fall. The orchestra returned to Irving Berlin for the movie’s frantic conclusion, playing the foxtrot “When it’s Nighttime in Dixie Land,” as the skating party spilled onto the streets of Los Angeles. Cymbals crashed and whistles blared as Chaplin hooked his cane onto the bumper of a passing car, gliding to safety and leaving in his trail an angry mob of policemen and aristocrats.

After a brief interlude of Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag,” a jaunty ragtime standard that featured George Sanders on trombone, the orchestra prepared for the final film of the afternoon, Buster Keaton’s The Play House, which Sinclair dubbed “the greatest silent film I have ever seen.” Keaton’s 1921 short is an exemplar of the audacious absurdity that defined his best silent comedies. As opposed to Chaplin’s endearing and mischievous character of the Tramp, whose brilliant smile and pathetic quirks conveyed a deeply human emotional core, Keaton’s stone-faced protagonist undermines any gestures towards empathy or understanding. His deadpan persistence in the face of confusion is both darker and funnier than Chaplin’s comedy, turning even the most mundane of situations into something strange, forbidding, and hilarious.

The film opens with an ingeniously choreographed bit in which Keaton wanders into a theater to watch a vaudeville revue. Once inside, we see that Keaton is not an average ticket-holder; he is the conductor of the pit orchestra, each musician in that orchestra, each singer and dancer on stage, and each member of 4 different couples in the audience. As Orchestra New England played the triumphant and slightly manic “Can-Can” from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, Keaton’s mirror images sawed violently at a cello, banged wildly at a drum set, and struggled not to consume an entire clarinet. Though each character’s actions must have been filmed separately, the comedy is so precise that Keaton appears to be playing against himself, 20 times over, for 10 minutes straight.
Mirroring the films themselves, Orchestra New England offered the audience playful, detailed, and perfectly timed performances that belied the complexity of the work that goes in to making seamless comedy and music.

“This concert should offer a good afternoon’s entertainment,” Sinclair said before the event. “But it should also leave you realizing, wow, I hadn’t really looked at these films this way before. They all seemed old and antiquated, but when you see them again, and you hear them accompanied by live music in the very same manner in which they would have been done in 1916 or 1921, it actually puts you in awe. It’s like being an adult and watching cartoons and thinking, wow, there’s a lot more going on than I realized.”

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