Thursday, June 13, 2013

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Goes to the Movies

Buster Keaton in "Our Hospitality" - film still courtesy of AMPAS
By Edwin Wendler

As part of their Silent Film Gala, now in its 24th year, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra had a comedic treat in store for a receptive and enthusiastic audience assembled at UCLA’s Royce Hall on June 8.  In his opening remarks, gala co-chairman Roger L. Mayer pointed to recent collaborations between the National Film Preservation Foundation and the New Zealand Film Archive in order to bring more silent movie masterpieces back to the public’s attention.

"Hungry Hobos" film still by Walt Disney Animation Studios
Mark Watters
Photo: Emily Abshere
Gala Executive Committee member Edward J. Nowak introduced the evening’s first movie: Walt Disney’s recently rediscovered, animated Hungry Hobos, featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  Created in 1928, this absurdly funny short film underwent a meticulous restoration supervised by Walt Disney Animation Studios’ David A. Bossert.  Composer Mark Watters crafted a new, brassy score with roots in the popular music of the era, and honoring Walt Disney’s preferences regarding music for animation.  For instance, Watters’s score references tunes like Pop Goes the Weasel and perfectly syncs musical accents with the cartoon characters’ screen antics.  The accurate timings of the digital master, and the click track which the musicians heard in their ear pieces, allowed for an ultra-precise, vigorous performance by the orchestra, conducted by the composer with gusto, for this world première live performance.

Dustin Hoffman
Photo: Platon
Gala co-chair Hanna M. Kennedy and actor Dustin Hoffman, who serves as honorary chair, announced the evening’s centerpiece feature film: Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923; co-directed with John G. Blystone).  Hoffman provided some trivia about the film (Keaton casting several of his own relatives; re-creating the “Stephenson’s Rocket” steam locomotive) and shared a touching anecdote about Keaton’s surprise at being celebrated as a master filmmaker when all he had ever wanted to do was to make people laugh.  Timothy Brock conducted the orchestra in a beautiful performance of Carl Davis’s delightfully restrained score (composed in 1984).  Davis is certainly no stranger to silent films, having written new music for a substantial number of them over the years, most notably Intolerance, Napoléon, and the 1925 version of Ben-Hur.  Much of the comedy in Our Hospitality derives from Keaton’s stoicism in the face of freakishly dangerous situations.  Carl Davis knows when to stay out of the way and let Keaton’s comedic genius do its magic.

Carl Davis
Photo: Carl Davis Collection
Clarinet (performed by Chris Bleth) and “Americana” strings introduce the score’s main, lyrical theme over the main titles. Remarkably, other than a giggling baby (Buster Keaton, Jr.), nothing about the opening sequence would lead the audience to believe that they are watching a comedy.  Chilling, high piano arpeggios (performed to perfection by Bryan Pezzone) accompany the cold rain, and an ominous motif (reminiscent of Franz Schubert’s Der Erlkönig) for the lower registers of the orchestra introduce us to the main plot device: a family feud between the Canfields and the McKays (obviously inspired by the Hatfields and the McCoys).  The 5-note “feud theme” later returns in many variations (including a more dominant 4-note version), mostly underscoring the Canfield clan’s menacing presence and often deliciously performed by Steve Suminski on trombone.  The rain arpeggios also return later, though in a much altered context.

Keaton’s character, Willie McKay, learns that he has inherited an estate from his father.  Willie’s resulting train trip gets its own, 8-note theme and consists of numerous, hilarious episodes, one of which involves an unmovable mule.  The sequence makes great use of a double-bass solo (performed by Nico Abondolo).  The movie’s action centerpiece, the thrilling “rapids sequence,” involves some heart-stopping stunts and requires virtuoso playing from the orchestra, whose concert master for the evening was Tereza Stanislav.

"Our Hospitality", film stills courtesy of AMPAS
Hanna M. Kennedy originated the Silent Film Gala for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 1990, combining seldom-seen cinematic gems with the musical skills from industry professionals who often perform on today’s movie scores.  I hope this series never ends.


Photos above are used by permission of LACO, AMPAS, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and The Carl Davis Collection.


Rodney Punt said...

Congratulations on joining the LA Opus family and writing your first article for us. May many more ensue.


Douglas Neslund said...

Welcome, Edwin! I enjoyed reading your first post on LA Opus.