Chaplin's "The Immigrant" arrives in Columbia

Howard County Times

The Columbia Orchestra has been tuning up and is ready for its season-opening concert on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School.

“This is a program I am really excited about,” said Columbia Orchestra music director Jason Love.

One reason he’s so eager to lift his baton is that this concert includes a world-premiere commission for which his orchestra asked composer Andrew Earle Simpson to write a score for a Charles Chaplin short film, “The Immigrant.”

In recent years, the orchestra has done similar programs in which the orchestra performs as a silent film is projected on a screen at the rear of the stage. Such programs serve as reminders that silent films were almost never presented silent, because they generally had some form of live musical accompaniment.

Among those who have been encouraging contemporary audiences to watch silent films with, er, new ears, is Simpson. A music professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he’s a versatile composer with a particular interest in writing and performing scores for silent films.

In our area, he has accompanied films at the National Gallery of Art, Library of Congress and the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. His original scores include Buster Keaton’s “The General”; two Lillian Gish-starring dramas, “The Wind” and “The Scarlet Letter”; the German vampire film “Nosferatu”; and the Soviet drama “Mother.”

For “The Immigrant,” Simpson has composed a new score for a 1917 comedy that is considered among the best of the short comedies that made Chaplin the most famous film star of his era. Chaplin’s two-reel films from the 1910s, which have a running time of around 20 minutes each, are adroitly constructed stories in which he strikes a balance between slapstick and sentiment.

“The Immigrant” definitely had an emotional connection for its original audience, because many were themselves recent immigrants who typically arrived through New York’s Ellis Island.

In the film, Chaplin’s beloved Tramp character is among the immigrants packed so tightly on a boat that you may find yourself thinking about cattle- or sardine-related expressions.

A scene in the film that resonates emotionally for any American in any era incorporates a documentary shot of the actual Statue of Liberty and the explanatory title card “the arrival in the land of Liberty.”

That section of the film will be given its emotional due in Simpsons score, Love said, noting that “when the Statue of Liberty is seen, Simpson (musically) quotes ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ and there is a swell of emotion.”

Further proof that playing live for silent films is an ongoing interest of the Columbia Orchestra comes just a few weeks from now. That’s when the Columbia Orchestra performs the score that Chaplin himself composed for his 1925 feature film “The Gold Rush” in screenings on Nov. 4 and 5 at the AFI Silver Theatre.

As for the upcoming Oct. 7 concert in Columbia, “The Immigrant” comprises just a fraction of the overall running time. Most of the program is devoted to Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43, and Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau.”

“Both pieces highlight how different cultures offer expressions of their homelands,” Love observed.

A Finnish composer who bridged late romantic and early modern music, Sibelius premiered his second symphony in 1902. It expresses his longing for Finnish independence from the Russian domination of that time. As Sibelius once commented: “My second symphony is a confession of the soul.”

The Czech composer Smetana’s “The Moldau” was completed in 1874. This symphonic tone poem about the Vltava River is the second movement of a six-movement suite titled “Ma Vlast (My Country).” Smetana characterized this suite as presenting “musical pictures of Czech glories and defeats.”

As Jason Love conducts his orchestra in “The Moldau,” his Columbia audience can expect a musically beautiful trip down a Czech river.

Columbia Orchestra performs Saturday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road in Columbia. Tickets are $22 and $28; $18 and $24 for seniors; $10 and $12 for students. Call 410-465-8777 or go to www.info@columbiaorchestra.org

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