Friday, February 21, 2014

Remembering When Chaplin Was King—A Splendid Evening of Film and Music

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. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

“To the Stars” Evening Flickers

A Symphonic Celebration of the Silent Age

Movie magic paired with great classical music takes the stage on Thursday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m. at the Heritage Center.  The Orchestra of Southern Utah will provide full symphonic accompaniment to vintage silent films. This concert is dedicated to the memory of Winston Seegmiller, a devoted OSU musician.

Dr. Xun Sun directs the orchestra in great classics such as Finlandia by Sibelius. A Night on Bald Mountain by Mussorgsky creates a firestorm of sound.  Danse Macabre by French composer Saint-Saëns features the solo violin tuned to a different pitch than the rest of the violins called scordatura, performed by concertmaster LuAnne Brown. “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites is a favorite piece used in numerous cartoons, ads, and movies. The Infernal Dance from the “Firebird Suite” by Stravinsky is an exciting and challenging piece.

The orchestra is celebrating vintage silent movies such as George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon and Charlie Chaplin classics.  Film excerpts capture the silent movie era with an emphasis on comedy accompanied by the full symphony orchestra.  Debbie Doyle will be backstage coordinating the computer linking the movies to the music. The music and silent films have been coordinated by Video Ideas of Tennessee, who created the visual enhancement for the Spanish Trail Suite for a previous OSU performance.  Steven Swift and Emily Hepworth are adding more comedies to the original presentation.

The recent movie Hugo re-introduced modern audiences to the silent movies and this program allows you to see a silent movie as it would have been performed with live music, although most of the time it was a theater organ rather than the full symphony orchestra you will enjoy.

The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation and Dennis Loeffel are the major sponsors for the evening Flickers concert.

Pre-concert lobby music provided by percussionist Jason Gottfried.

Tickets are now available at the Heritage Center, 105 N. 100 East in Cedar City.  Adults $10, students $5, and groups of 6 are $30.  Children over six welcome with adult supervision.  No babies please as the concert is recorded.  We have removed the horror films so the emphasis is on comedy.  The suggested age is now 6 and above.
            For a look at the Silent Movie era check out stars, costumes, and movies at Previews of silent movie era:, Dream a Little Dream Medley with music from fall recitals and a train slapstick comedy at   Videos and Pinterest page produced by Laurel Dodgion.

For more information, please visit, email, or call OSU Manger Emily Hepworth at 435-233-8213.


Emily Hepworth
OSU Manager
435-319-0692 (good for texts and calls)
435-233-8213 (good if you need a local number, no texts)

Who:  Orchestra of Southern Utah
What: Evening performance of classical music with vintage silent movies
When:  Thursday, Feb. 20, 7:30 p.m.
Where:  Heritage Center, 105 N. 100 East, Cedar City
Why:  To enjoy great classical music and movies from the silent movie era
Cost:  $10 adults, $5 students, $30 groups of six.  Children over six with adult supervision are welcome. No babies please, as the concert is recorded.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Arts Day on the Hill

The Orchestra of Southern Utah was represented at Arts Day on the Hill this year as we joined with Shakespearean Festival leaders to thank our legislators for their support of the arts in Cedar City and Southern Utah.  OSU sincerely appreciates our legislators Senator Vickers and Representative Westwood.
 Brian Vaughn, Bridget Lee (for OSU), Senator Vickers, Joshua Stavros, and Fred Adams.
With Representative Westwood