Saturday night was a first for a lot of Tacoma folks: the first time many had watched a silent movie with live orchestral accompaniment, and the first time the 21-year-old Northwest Sinfonietta had played in the Temple Theater. And although the ensemble had done Charlie Chaplin before, it wasn’t a 2-hour feature film. So the effect was even more impressive as the chamber orchestra struck gold, playing for Chaplin’s 1925 “The Gold Rush” with warmth, delicacy and the kind of precise visual synchronization that made you occasionally forget they were even there.
Of course, playing live music for a film in a historic theater built just one year after the film was made is delightfully appropriate, and watching the orchestra tune up in front of a big screen on that enormous stage flanked by art deco Egyptian pillars of aqua and gold is enough to send shivers down your spine. But the tricky part of accompanying film music as a group is keeping together and keeping up with the images – and the Sinfonietta, under phenomenally precise direction from Christophe Chagnard, did this brilliantly.
Interestingly, the evening began with a peek into just how difficult the task is. Chagnard pulled up scans from his 500-page score on the screen, pointing out the verbal cues (characters standing up, fighting, leaving) and his own extremely highlighted notes on cueing his orchestra. It was an insight that few other than professional musicians would have known, and gave depth to the experience.
Chaplin’s music, too, is far from easy. Although he didn’t actually read or write music, he obviously knew a lot of tunes, and made up some too for his 1942 rerelease of the 1925 original. The whole score is a delicious mish-mash of classical greats, pop tunes of the day and lush palm-court melodies, plus the usual sound effects for clunks on the head, wind blowing and so on. These are strung precariously together, but Chagnard linked them smoothly, eliciting a warm sound (especially from the lower strings, not easy in a capacious venue like that) and sharp clarity from the woodwinds.
There were sweeping romantic passages like Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” (hilariously accompanying the dance-hall scene where Chaplin’s tramp character leashes himself to a dog for the dance of his dreams), perky medleys like “Loch Lomond” and “Comin’ Thru the Rye” as the tramp waddles unconcernedly over the Chilkoot Pass, dramatic Wagnerian motifs as his fellow prospectors claimed their gold, mournful strings for snowy wastelands and melodramatic diminished chords for that incredibly funny scramble in the cabin teetering over a precipice. Solos shone beautifully from bassoon, cello and violin. There were a few untidy moments but mostly the orchestra provided such a feast of perfectly timed hat lifts, gun shots, spits, hiccups and snow ball explosions that you almost forgot they were there in their sheer synchronization with the genius happening on screen.
And the crowd loved it, showing with cheers for Chaplin’s victories (and a standing ovation at the end) just how powerful live music can be during a film – and how Chaplin knew how to harness it.
If anyone needed convincing that the Sinfonietta could play a successful show in the expanse of the Temple, this weekend proved the point. With a big stage and cabaret seating, it’s an ideal venue for a lot of out-of-the-box concerts like this: film, dance, multimedia, pop/rock collaborations. Let’s hope their first show there won’t be the last.
The Northwest Sinfonietta performs next on April 19-21 in Seattle, Tacoma and Puyallup. Information: 888-356-6040, northwestsinfonietta.org