Thursday, February 21, 2019

Music gives voice to silent films in VSO chamber event

During the silent film era (1895-1930), it was common for movie theaters to provide live music accompaniment while the film was shown. Most theaters hired an organist or a pianist, who could improvise as the movie played. Some theaters in larger towns or cities provided a chamber ensemble to accompany the film. Resurrecting this long-ago performance art, moviegoers got a refreshing taste of keyboard improvisation while watching Laurel and Hardy’s Wrong Again and incidental music from a chamber ensemble during Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman at Kiggins Theatre on February 10 as part of the Vancouver Symphony’s chamber music series.

The music for the performances was led by Rodney Sauer, a pianist, arranger of music, and scholar of silent films who lives in Denver. Sauer knows his way around the keyboard so well that he can play in the dark, because all of the lights were turned off when he accompanied Wrong Again. He improvised the entire way through 20-minute film in which Laurel and Hardy depict two clueless stable hands who mistakenly try to get $5,000 in reward money from a millionaire by bringing a racehorse named Blue Boy instead of a missing painting with the same name. Hilarious circumstances ensue after Laurel and Hardy bring the horse into the millionaire’s mansion and get him to stand on top of the grand piano!

The melodies that Sauer played had a music hall quality. Now and then, he would segue into something blatantly familiar like “Camptown Races.” He relied on a trill whenever Laurel or Hardy used an odd hand gesture to indicate that rich people were peculiar. If a scene was suspenseful, it was accompanied by an unresolved chord. Whenever the action became faster, the music picked up speed. Overall, Sauer’s deft accompaniment helped to give the film a voice and added to the laughter.

For The Cameraman, Sauer wrote a score that was a compilation of music available from the 1920s for silent films. He performed it with a quartet of VSO musicians: violinist Eva Richey, cellist Dieter Ratzlaf, trumpeter Bruce Dunn, and clarinetist Igor Shahkman. They opened the film with a quick fanfare and accompanied the scenes with gusto.

The movie’s plot centered on Keaton as a bumbling tintype photographer who falls in love with the receptionist at a news organization. In those days, cameramen were sort of like news hounds who had to go out and film some event that would capture the public’s interest. To impress and win the young lady, Keaton spends all of his money on an old camera and tries his luck at getting a story. After some mishaps he captures a big fight in Chinatown between rival gangs, but that reel goes missing due to a mischievous monkey. Keaton doesn’t give up and, with the aid of the monkey, captures an accident at a boat race in which he rescues the girl. In the end, his filming of the gang war, the boat race, and the rescue win him a job at the news company and the girl.

The movie had plenty of pratfalls and gags were expertly accompanied by the musicians. Salon-like music and lyrical passages accompanied the romantic scenes. The pace of the music quickened whenever Keaton raced through the streets or up and down flights of stairs. At one point, Keaton and another man are crowded in booth at a swimming pool and engage in a chaotic struggle to get out of their street clothes and into swim trunks. The chamber ensemble accompanied their antics with a Strauss Waltz. Much of the music was paired so seamlessly with the action or situation that I forgot about the music altogether. I have to admit that it would be fun to experience the movie and the music again to figure out how Sauer made the experience work so well. Overall, the experience of chamber music and silent film was magical.

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