BPO – Silent Classics with Neil Brand (presenter & composer), David Gray (piano), Joanna MacGregor (conductor)

This was very different from the usual Sunday afternoon concert. It started with a chat about that antique skill, accompanying silent films. Some clear examples were played on the piano and we were given hints about how difficult it is to synchronise an orchestral score to what is showing on the screen. This was all very informal, fascinating and brief. I would happily have enjoyed a full lecture from these experts but the entertainment was about to begin.

Buster Keaton’s 25 minute masterpiece ‘One Week’, was made in 1920 when he was only 21 years old. It still raises laughs, chuckles and gasps from old and young alike, and there were plenty of children in today’s audience. Alone at the piano, David Gray followed every twist, turn and shock of the often astonishing narrative with a torrent of riffs, tunes and sound effects. They were so appropriate that at times one barely noticed the music, it blended so thoroughly with the action – and that is proof of its excellence. Perhaps I heard moments of Liszt, Cage or Schumann, snatches of tune flashing out from a very agile musical mind. Themes were played, and played-with in inventive variations, to be suddenly dropped as soon as the scene changed. It was a masterly and modest musical performance, led by and enhancing the flickering story on the screen.

The second feature, the 1922 silent version of ‘Oliver Twist’, starring the extraordinary seven-year-old Jackie Coogan, was accompanied by a dozen soloists from the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra directed in real time by Joanna MacGregor. Now the music was not improvised. It meticulously followed Neil Brand’s elaborate score.

Once again the film itself was the main attraction and the music added atmosphere, sound effects and pace. If I could remember much more than Fagin’s wheedling Klezmer theme or the insistent snare drum at moments of high tension then the composer would have over-stepped the mark. My attention stayed focussed on the film. Perhaps I briefly wondered “Was that quirky noise percussion or woodwind?”, when it was probably both, or perhaps some quaint effect on the strings. The players were clearly enjoying themselves but were kept on their mettle, alert to the precision and nuances of the conductor. As a musical experience it was exciting, extravagant and triumphantly forgettable, which made the whole event very enjoyable.

Dome Concert Hall
6 March 2022
Rating: ★★★★★
Andrew Connal

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