Dallas — If the way to fame is to find a niche and fill it, the Dallas Chamber Symphony is headed to the top. They have a new take on commissioning new compositions. Here, it is scores to silent movies and it is very effective, indeed. For the concert on Tuesday evening at Dallas City Performance Hall, three slapstick comedies received new scores.
When these movies were first presented, the scores were played live, just like on Tuesday. In the smaller houses, it was a pianist or an organist; while in the prestigious theaters in the big cities, it was a pick-up orchestra whose numbers (and quality) varied. They rarely had a score composed for them. Mostly, the music director looked through the movie and picked music from an existing repertoire to match the action on the screen. This assembled pastiche was then played while the silent movie screened.
The original creators of the three comedies we saw on Tuesday would have been thrilled with the rests of the ministrations of three composers. All the films were banana-peel broad comedies, with lots of everyone hitting each other frequently—and falling on the ground just as much.
Before the hilarity, we heard two very serious pieces of music: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 and Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.
The Bach was first. As was the practice at the time, the performance was “conducted” by concertmaster Kazuhiro Takagi. It probably would have benefited from the modern practice of having a dedicated conductor because the ensemble was on the ragged side. It was fast and energetic with period-savvy minimal vibrato sitting uncomfortably with modern day dynamics and bowings. An interpolated violin cadenza was a surprise. Grady Coyle, one of the area’s best organists, was seated at the harpsichord but barely audible, which was a shame because he surely did a fine job.
Britten’s Serenade fared somewhat better. Music Director Richard McKay remains an accurate but unexpressive presence on the podium. One odd thing: the orchestra didn’t stand when McKay came on stage to conduct.
Tenor Shawn Mlynek gave a fine performance of this difficult work. In fact, the timbre of his voice was ideally suited, lacking the Italian tenor ring, a trait he shares with the tenor for which it was written: Perter Pears, Britten’s life partner.
Mlynek didn’t quite know what to do with his body in a work with such a varied text, lacking the storytelling that song cycles usually offer. He took the less-is-more approach and it worked nicely. The poetry ranges from Tennyson and Blake to that most prolific poet—Anonymous—dating from the 15th century, but it mattered little in this performance. Mlynek’s diction was on the mushy side and the text, printed in a minuscule type face, was impossible to see in the dark auditorium.
Katie Wolber did a great job with the horn part, a shoal upon which many others have floundered. Britten adds the complication of asking the horn player to play the solo prelude and postlude on the natural horn, which lacks the values of modern horns and is more difficult to play.
The silent comic movies that followed took us to a completely different world. Alain Mayrand was up first with a score for Harold Lloyd in Ask Father. This was the funniest of the three and Lloyd’s humor and timing have to be experiences to fully appreciate. One discordant note, from a thankfully bygone era, was a frame before the titles that said “Passed by the National Board of Review.” Glad they went the way of the hoop skirt.
Mayrand’s bouncy score for Lloyd’s short had a tune that was reminiscent of Prokofiev, but did a fine job of mirroring what was on the screen, which was constantly funny throughout.
Penka Louneva’s score for Charlie Chaplin’s By the Sea was a fine effort, but it couldn’t make up for the lame plot, full of overblown fight sequences. Brian Satterwhite’s music for Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow was a charming pastiche of musical styles. The movie was clever and full of silly chase scenes. His incarnation as the scarecrow of the title was especially funny.
By the way, the young Buster Keaton was a surprisingly handsome man for those of us who only remember him in his hysterical turn in the 1966 film version of Sondheim’s musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That was his last screen appearance and what a memorable one it was. The timing displayed in this early film was his hallmark in his last, as well.