Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Maestro, If You Please!

With the San Francisco Silent Film Festival having expanded to four days in mid-July, something happened last week that added an extra level of satisfaction excitement for Bay area silent film fans. As the centerpiece of its annual winter event, the festival presented the 1926 version of La Boheme that was directed by King Vidor with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert as the romantic leads.

Later in the week, the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra screened Harold Lloyd's 40-minute Now or Never with a new score especially commissioned for the event. While both films thoroughly entertained their respective audiences, the two events were equally interesting for their musicological innovations.

* * * * * * * * * *
While most of us are familiar with the score to Giacomo Puccini's popular opera, La Boheme, we often take it for granted because Puccini's music is now in the public domain. That's why it's important to consider the historic timeline leading up to the 1926 silent film.
  • Written by Henri Murger (and first published in 1851), Scenes de la vie de boheme has become the source material for numerous musical works up to and including 1996's Rent.
  • Puccini's opera had its world premiere at the Teatro Regio in Turin on February 1, 1896. The performance was conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
  • The following year, on May 6, 1897, Ruggero Leoncavallo's version of the story (also titled La Boheme) had its world premiere in Venice at the famed Teatro la Fenice.
  • A 1916 silent film version of La boheme starred Alice Brady.
  • In 1926, MGM's new version starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, directed by King Vidor received its world premiere. However, because Puccini's operatic score was still under copyright, his music could not be used to accompany the 1926 silent film.

Co-presented by the San Francisco Opera, the film was accompanied by Dennis James (a long-time favorite  with local audiences who toured with Gish during the 1980s, by which time he was able to incorporate many of Puccini's themes into his organ accompaniment). Gish reportedly told the young Mr. James that his work had finally allowed audiences to see the film as it was intended to be seen by its creative team.As pianist and cultural historian Peter Mintun once noted:
"Theatre organist Dennis James is one of the only living musicians who understands what is musically, historically, and cinematically appropriate for silent films. Dennis James' choice of music (some of which is original) subconsciously guides the listener into many moods: tension, bliss, excitement, despair, terror, and hilarity. He is able to accomplish this while remaining correct for the period of the film. In other words, if Mr. James' performance had been played when the film was first exhibited, it would have been considered contemporary. He would never attempt to modernize the feeling of the period by creating a score that would clash."
There were, of course, certain moments in the movie which inspired more laughter than pathos. The garret where Rodolphe and Marcello live (as well as the expansive attic rented by Mimi) had amazing amounts of floor space for such impoverished tenants. Mimi's final slog back to the garret (after collapsing at work) was notable for the many ways in which Gish's body was dragged around the streets of Paris.
Rodolphe (John Gilbert) and Mimi (Lillian Gish) in La Boheme

It was fascinating to hear how Mr. James incorporated parts of Puccini's score into his accompaniment. The following clip (with very different music) is from the middle of the film, when Mimi and Rodolphe head into the countryside on a picnic. With or without Puccini's music, the film's basic romanticism shines through.

* * * * * * * * * *
Another musician familiar to San Francisco Silent Film Festival audiences is Donald Sosin who, on Saturday, February 12, accompanied three Chaplin shorts at the piano. Later that week, Sosin popped up in several venues, where his newly-commissioned score for the Harold Lloyd film enjoyed its world premiere. Directed by Hal Roach and Fred C. Newmeyer, Now or Never (1921) co-starred  Mildred Davis as the object of Lloyd's affection.

Harold Lloyd

In his program notes, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra's music director, Benjamin Simon, explained how such a curious commission came about:
"This program is built around the unusual instrumentation of Stravinsky’s Octet (1923), scored for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, and two trombones. The program opens with a late-Renaissance canzona by Giovanni Gabrieli featuring our four brass players. UC Berkeley professor Cindy Cox has composed a new piece for the same octet and silent film composer Donald Sosin has written a new score for Harold Lloyd’s 1921 Now or Never (which will be screened during our performance)." 
It's interesting to note that, unlike the San Francisco Film Society (which continues to commission rock groups to accompany silent film screenings), the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra approached a composer with a solid background in accompanying silent film, gave him a distinct set of parameters to work with, and got a much better result.

The following clip --  which shows Simon conducting his eight-member ensemble as the film plays out on a screen above them -- offers one of the rare chances to see a chamber music conductor wearing headphones while he conducts his musicians (Simon was actually listening to a carefully timed track of how the music should be paced for maximum impact).

No comments: