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-- Joe Banno
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
It was gratifying, in this cynical age, to hear a Strathmore Hall audience respond to the old-school slapstick and Victorian sentimentality in Charlie Chaplin's 1931 film "City Lights" with waves of laughter and (in that sublime final scene) moist eyes and sniffles.
Of course, "City Lights" is a masterpiece of pitch-perfect comic timing and frank emotion. What might have surprised some in the audience was Chaplin's own highly accomplished musical score, which arranger Arthur Johnston orchestrated for the film's soundtrack. At Friday's Strathmore screening, Marin Alsop led the Baltimore Symphony in a live rendering of Chaplin's music.
The program notes quote Chaplin as stating, "Everything I do is a dance," and it's no surprise that his score here is suffused with dance rhythms (salon waltzes, frenetic Jazz Age beats, Latin-tinged society-orchestra fare) all dressed in accessible, instantly memorable melodies. Chase sequences are accompanied by chugging Vivaldian figures; comic moments are pointed up with siren whistles, kazoos and the like; and when the storyline turns poignant, the music shifts to the kind of yearning, string-heavy writing that wouldn't be out of place in an Italian verismo opera. And it all works like a dream.
Alsop's conducting was scrupulous with Chaplin's carefully timed cues, and the BSO delivered lush tone, a breezy boulevard manner and just the right lascivious growl in the brass for the speakeasy sequences. This was music worth hearing even if the screen were dark.
-- Joe Banno