By Bryce Christensen
Critic Brian Morton remembers a now-vanished world in which “playing live accompaniment to silent film . . . , [then] seen as the cutting edge,” was “a bracing immersion in the Zeitgeist” for an aspiring musician, an immersion that developed musical talents with “both satiric-comedic and tragical dimensions.” Astonishingly, that bygone Zeitgeist breathed again the night of February 20th, as the Orchestra of Southern Utah (OSU) performed at the Heritage Center in a marvelous symphonic tribute to the age of silent films, under the theme of “Flickers: ‘To the Stars.’” This innovative fusion of classic cinema and live accompaniment once again made silent film cutting edge and once again brought to the fore the satiric-comedic and tragical dimensions of powerful music.
OSU President Harold Shirley opened the evening, appropriately dressed as Charlie Chaplin (complete with mustache). In remarks at once informative and entertaining, he reminded the audience of the decades when Cedar City residents starved for entertainment packed theaters, hungry for Hollywood’s latest silent-film offering and for the organ accompaniment that amplified the cinema magic. Shirley appropriately announced that the concert was, in fact, dedicated to the memory of Winston Seegmiller, who drew inspiration for his long life of inspiring musicianship from his mother, who once played live accompaniment for Cedar City’s silent-film venues.
Some ghostly echo of the music that Winston Seegmiller and his mother once played for appreciative regional audiences seemed to linger as Shirley left the stage and the Orchestra transported the audience back across the decades, back to a simpler American era.
As the first number of the evening began, the audience marveled not only at the stirring first notes of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain but also at the technical ingenuity that suspended a special screen above the orchestra so that concert-goers could simultaneously enjoy a rich outpouring of music and a revival of the silent-film classic Cinderella, first released in 1911. The Russian composer, of course, concludes his creation with the reassuring toll of a church bell, an orchestral finale apt for a fairytale ending uniting a long-oppressed maiden with her Prince Charming. But before that happily-ever-after consummation, the audience hears the demonic fury of the witches’ sabbath that Mussorgsky envisioned while writing this piece. Many listeners naturally remembered how Walt Disney appropriated that fury for the irrepressible 1940 film Fantasia. But on this night, that fury was the perfect counterpoint for the sheer nastiness of Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters.
The evening’s second number left earth behind in both images and music. The silent film that flickered above the stage was Trip to the Moon, a ground-breaking 1902 offering of the French cinemagician Georges Melies. As the audience followed a brave party of astronauts in their perilous journey to the moon and back, they listened to Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Saint-Saens’ foray into the land of the dead providing the musical backdrop for Melies’ venture into the dangerous world of moon people. Melies’ astronauts may have violated every principle of physics in their improbable return to earth from the moon. But OSU’s musicians legitimately availed themselves of every principle of musical harmony in carrying the audience first into an otherworldly land of spectral tarantellas and then into a concluding heaven of peaceful serenity. (Ariel Rhoades’ flute solo for this number was simply exquisite!) To the moon and back again indeed!
The evening’s third number matched the see-saw antics of the trolls, gnomes, and goblins that invade the fevered mind of Peter Gynt in Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King with the comic kinetics of the immortal Peter Chaplin in The Lion’s Cage (1928). Grieg was aiming at some social satire in his subversively ironic music, persuasively rendered by the orchestra. Chaplin aimed for—and hit!—the funny bone of generations of amazed movie fans. Who would ever have thought a master of cinema mime could wring so many laughs out of fearful confrontations with a lion and an accidental collision with a donkey?
After the intermission, the audience contemplated perhaps the evening’s most puzzling—yet still piquantly entertaining—juxtaposition. Listeners may have wondered just how the soaring lyricism of Sibelius’ Finlandia accords with the hijinks of Sir Toby Belch and his mischievous companions captured in a silent-film version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 1910. But maybe it was best not to worry too much about that. So while one part of the mind relished the humor of the hopelessly deluded Malvolio in his cross-gartered stockings, the other part of the mind could still savor the sublime romanticism of Sibelius’ most intoxicating strains, at once a poignant expression of love for a wonderful country and a tragic lament for that country’s political subjugation. Under the inspiring baton of the OSU conductor Xun Sun, the orchestra musicians rose to their highest level of performance—rich, full, piercing—for this superb number!
Stravinsky’s stirring Firebird Suite provided the accompaniment for the last two silent films of the evening—first The Fireman (1916), another Charlie Chaplin classic, and then a segment from the First Wizard of Cinema, a collection made to honor the French master of silent film Georges Melies, this segment especially highlighting his The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906).
The pyrotechnic folk enchantments of the “Infernal Dance” section propelled the audience through the unpredictable Chaplin film, a film in which hilarious pratfalls and absurd reversals punctuate a melodramatic tale of an unscrupulous act of arson imperiling a fair damsel, finally rescued by a heroic fireman.
And in a fitting conclusion to the evening, the majestic musical artistry of the Finale to Stravinsky’s masterpiece rose to—perhaps even surpassed—the imaginative genius of Melies’ surreal image of a satanic chariot careening through unknown realms. Pete Akins’ rich and sonorous French horn solo in this number deserves special mention.
In all, the evening’s concert gave music lovers yet another reason to rejoice in the exceptional talent in this city. OSU merits particular praise for, once again, daring to experiment with a highly original presentation of iconic music. Kudos especially to Steven Swift for revising the movies to family friendly and to the Heritage Center staff for devising the projection system for screening the silent films while the orchestra played. This kind of fresh originality in presentation will surely help attract new patrons to the concert all. But what will keep them coming is outstanding musicianship that Xun Sun and the OSU performers always deliver. Many thanks to Sun, to the instrumentalists who performed under his direction, and to the concert sponsors (Dennis Loeffel and the George S. and Doré Eccles Foundation), who recognize the irreplaceable value to the community of such unforgettable music.