Dallas — Saturday night at Moody Performance Hall, Dallas Chamber Symphony opened its 2018-19 season with one of the several things that makes the ensemble an invaluable addition on the local arts scene: the presentation of classic cinema from the silent movie era with newly composed symphonic accompaniment. In this case, the movie was Buster Keaton’s 1923 groundbreaking seven-reel comedy, Our Hospitality, and the new score was provided by Scott Glasgow, who previously contributed music for the recent films such as The Curse of Sleeping Beauty and Captain America—Civil War, among others.
Historians and connoisseurs of silent film have long recognized the genius of Buster Keaton, not only as an innovative comic actor but as an exemplary creator and director of film narrative. Viewed almost a century after crowds gasped with laughter at Keaton’s onscreen antics, Our Hospitality remains a visually fascinating monument to the possibilities of silent film, as well as a pioneering effort in extended onscreen comedy, character development within comedy, and exploration of cultural norms.
Set in 1830, and built around a fictional Appalachian feud between the Canfields and the McKays (inspired by Hatfields and McCoys), Our Hospitality features wood-burning locomotives, bicycles without pedals, hundreds of sight gags, a Romeo-and-Juliet love story, a horse in a dress, a loyal dog, and an incredible final chase sequence, complete with trains, boats, a cliff-hanger with an actual cliff, an underwater scene, and a ride over a waterfall, all centered around wide-eyed, poker-faced, catastrophe-prone Keaton.
Which is to say, Keaton provided, along with still stunning and laugh-inducing commentary on American culture and human nature, a magnificent structure on which to hang a symphonic score.
Glasgow’s score, for small orchestra of six strings, five winds, piano and percussion, dives into the opening tragic prologue with Tchaikovskian melody and unabashed sound effects. Gentle pastoral music follows, with broad Coplandesque harmonies as the scene settles into Appalachia. A waltz for strings alone backs up genteel southern domesticity, while a comical chaconne accompanies a scene in which Keaton as a McKay finds himself at dinner with his enemies, the Canfields. Direct quotes from Beethoven (“Fur Elise”) and Dvořák (“New World Symphony”) pop up at appropriate moments, while reminders of Stravinsky, Ravel, Honegger and Shostakovich weave in and out before the final, grandly American coda, with tremolo strings to accompany the happily-ever-after ending.
For all this variety of style, Glasgow creates here a remarkably unified effect, responding vigorously to all of Keaton’s mood swings and humor, relying—as does Keaton’s visual material—on surprising shifts of mood as well as subtle nuances of tone. In terms of orchestration, Glasgow impressively draws a sometimes opulent, always colorful effect from the small ensemble.
The musicians, all of them constantly exposed—there’s no place to hide in an ensemble this small—responded with uniform virtuosity; conductor Richard McKay, the orchestra’s founding music director (and no relation to the fictional McKays of Our Hospitality), has become a sure and steady hand at conducting a live orchestra to accompany a silent film.
Productions of this sort provide numerous benefits, including support for living composers and a fresh musical experience for local concert-goers. Equally important, events of this nature expose audiences to the communal experience of silent cinema in a theater with live music, as well as the opportunity for the commissioned composers—many of whom work almost exclusively in the film industry—to hear live, entirely acoustic performance of their music.