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Conductor's Timing Put to the Test

Carl Davis will return to raise the baton for L.A. Chamber Orchestra's annual fund-raising gala, this year featuring two Chaplin silent films.


Setting a tempo has never been more critical.

Opera singers will adjust to the music. So will concert pianists. Films, however, keep streaming through the projector at an unwavering pace.

So when conductor Carl Davis gives the first downbeat Saturday night to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to begin the score for Charlie Chaplin's 1921 classic, "The Kid," it had better be the right one.

Chances are it will. Davis has made a name for himself over the last 15 years composing and restoring silent film scores. He hooked up with film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill to score Abel Gance's "Napoleon" in 1980. Later, he wrote music for their three-part documentary, "Unknown Chaplin," and restored the scores for "City Lights" and "The Gold Rush."

While he also scores contemporary films, including the recent Oscar-winning documentary, "Anne Frank Remembered," Davis' work with silent film has given him a parallel career: He's conducted orchestras for silent films from Scandinavia to Southeast Asia. In February, he took "City Lights" on a monthlong tour of the East Coast.

"They're always tremendous," Davis said of the turnout. "Charlie is almost universally loved."


For the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's seventh annual Silent Film Gala, Davis will conduct both "The Kid," Chaplin's first feature-length film, and the short, "The Idle Class." The gala is a fund-raiser, said LACO board member Hanna Kennedy, that usually brings in about $100,000 for the orchestra.

Kennedy brought Davis aboard in 1991 to conduct "City Lights," and he has returned each year--flying from his home in London--to conduct the gala.

The films to be shown are new prints made from masters owned by the Chaplin family, said Gill, but do not include some scenes that Chaplin later removed when reissuing the films.

An important part of film restoration, Gill said, is "to bring it before a large audience and with a live orchestra. . . . Performing these scores live gives these films such impact. It's quite astounding."

Davis' association with Brownlow and Gill seems to have given him a film purist's eye. They insist, for example, that the silent films be projected at the correct speed. When movie sound came along, filmmakers had to adopt a standard--24 frames per second--so that the sound wouldn't vary in pitch from theater to theater. Before that, however, there were no rules.

For the L.A. Chamber Orchestra's annual gala, the film is slowed down to 21 frames per second, making it a little bit longer. When Davis restored Chaplin's score, he had to add some music to make up for the difference.

"It's a little bit like taking out stitches," Davis said, "adding to the hem."

Music was only occasionally written for silent films in the 1920s--often for the premieres. But once the prints were sent to the theaters, it was often up to the pit orchestra or the organist to choose the music. Filmmakers or studios might make suggestions, but they had no control.

Chaplin, in fact, didn't write the score for "The Kid" or "The Idle Class," the gala's opening short film, until 1971. He had arranged to re-release some of his old films and reportedly was so pleased with the arrangement and the renewed acclaim it brought him that he added both films to the deal and wrote new scores.

Known primarily as a comic actor and director, Chaplin was also an accomplished musician. He played violin, cello and piano and wrote the music for his later films, including "Modern Times" and "The Great Dictator." He was a "marvelous melodist," said Davis. "The melodies in 'The Kid' are fabulous--really, really beautiful. . . . Above all, he knew what was right for comedy."

For the orchestra, the 25-minutes of "The Idle Class" and a full hour of "The Kid" present a sort of feat of endurance, Davis said. While it's not necessarily longer than a symphony concert, he said, musicians have to play almost continuously using only small stand lights.

The hardest part, said flutist David Shostac, is trying not to watch the movie out of the corner of your eye. "It's really big, and you're right next to it," he said.

Even though he will have rehearsed with the orchestra and a video monitor, Davis knows how distracting that silver screen can be. Things can throw the musicians--or him--off.

"My great triumph," Davis said, "is to get to the end when we should."


* WHAT: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Silent Film Gala, presenting Charlie Chaplin's "The Kid" and "Idle Class."

* WHERE: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday.

* HOW MUCH: $25 general; $50 preferred seating; $200 preferred seating and dinner.

* CALL: (213) 622-7001, Ext. 252.

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