Dallas — Tuesday at Dallas City Performance Hall, the Dallas Chamber Symphony continued its highly commendable series of silent cinema from the 1920s accompanied by new, live music. This time around, one of the masterpieces of that era, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, met up with new music specially composed by Craig Safan (whose long list of credits includes Stand and Deliver and The Last Starfighter, to name only two) for an event that was both revelatory and unforgettable.
A viewing of The Kid on a big screen presents a remarkable experience in itself; while it’s great to live in an age when we can pull up great movies on all sorts of devices at any time, The Kid is best viewed in that darkened room with hundreds of other viewers—giving a taste of what it was like to see this amazing work of cinematic art in a world in which a full-length “moving picture” was revolutionary and miraculous. Chaplin here brings full nuance to his iconic waddling, mustached, mishap-prone clown character; at the same time, the viewer can sense his incredible directorial skill and masterful ability to encapsulate time, space, and the human experience within a rectangular frame. (One of the more amazing aspects of The Kid is, indeed, Chaplin’s insistent portrayal of an impoverished, gritty urban setting, in a way that contemporary film-makers, try as they might, hardly ever achieve.)
Working with a small acoustic orchestra of barely more than a dozen players—in contrast to the vast digital and symphonic resources available in Hollywood today—composer Safan creates a sound world to match Chaplin’s epic emotional range. Appropriately, Safan evokes, without slavishly imitating, the rhythms and energy of ragtime and Gershwin-esque, 1920s jazz; obvious but effective appropriations include Chopin’s Funeral March, “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,” “Blest Be the Tie that Binds,” and “There’s No Place Like Home.” Still more significant and admirable are Safan’s creation of several broadly emotional melodic motifs, winding their way meaningfully through Chaplin’s plot, as well as his striking use of silence. No swooping violins when child-star Jackie Coogan pleads; masterful Hollywood hand Safan, experienced with intergalactic battles and epic car chases, knows exactly when to let what’s happening on the screen speak for itself.
The concert opened with two other contemporary works, presenting, in conjunction with Safan’s score for The Kid, a beautifully broad view of what’s going on in American music today—something Dallas Chamber Symphony’s neighbors across the street at the Meyerson should take into consideration someday. To open the evening, Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes for eight brass and tape provided a hypnotically powerful and skillful demonstration of the potential of the combination live acoustic instruments and manipulated recorded noise. Kevin Puts’ Seven Seascapes, inspired by brief quotations from literary figures of the 19th and 20th centuries, including Emily Dickinson, Carl Sandburg, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf, presented a constantly momentous, often breathtakingly beautiful series of quick sketches.
Throughout, the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor Richard McKay admirably managed the artistic angle as well as the intense and highly varied technical issues involved in this program. Once again, the Dallas Chamber Symphony proved itself a hugely valuable asset to the Dallas music scene.