Now, it is generally accepted that in films, music has a very specific purpose. It is meant to enhance and complement the mood the director is trying to establish, and can contribute greatly to the overall experience of the film, even to the extent of determining whether it is any good or not. As it is a background element rather than a focal point, it is often stated that film music is at its best when it blends in with the atmosphere to the point of being unnoticeable. All of this makes attending a concert where the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra performs the score to two silent Chaplin movies consecutively a questionable task – although it turned out to be a highly enjoyable one.
Performing to a theatre packed with family types out for a relaxed Saturday afternoon at the cinema, the 45-piece orchestra prepared itself onstage until conductor Frank Strobel made his appearance. After a brief comic introduction, Chaplin’s Idle Class started rolling on the silver screen while the orchestra ran through the director-penned score. Highly befitting of a 1920s silent comedy, the music had a playful quality to it, with the percussionists often adding gag sound effects to augment the various on-screen shenanigans – timing them perfectly for the most part. It quickly became apparent that the orchestra was taking great joy in their task, and such performances are always delightful to witness.
When the lights turned low and one’s attention focused on Charlie Chaplin’s comic genius, it was often all too easy to forget that the orchestra was even there (in part due to its accomplished sense of timing). When I was properly immersed in the movie and its plot, I frequently had to remind myself why I had come in the first place; the music was flawlessly executed and sounded so good that it might as well have been coming from the theatre’s high quality sound system. The only tell-tale signs that this was in fact a live performance by Iceland’s classical elite were the rare occasions when they fumbled and drew one’s attention away from Chaplin’s plateau.
Nevertheless, after mulling this over while the latter movie, The Kid, was beginning, I came to the conclusion that the orchestra did indeed give off a certain warmth of tone and general mood special to the performance. I divided my attention between the performance and the movie throughout the course of The Kid (which has a very engaging plot) and came to the conclusion that this was a worthy endeavour for the orchestra to embark upon, not the least since it seemed to be drawing children who wouldn’t normally get exposed to this kind of music.
As for myself, I couldn’t help but wish I had chosen some other performance to properly acquaint myself with the obviously competent orchestra. Maybe the film score plays a larger part in silent movies than our modern-day talkies, and witnessing it performed live is certainly a novelty. I still feel that the movies in question somewhat drew away from the pleasure to be had from experiencing a finely tuned and powerful orchestra, and will certainly need to venture there again to witness what the orchestra is capable of at its best.