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Carl Davis joins L.A. Chamber Orchestra for a silent film special

Composer Carl Davis and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra take on the music of silent films at a Royce Hall event Sunday night.

May 19, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Carl Davis will conduct his compositions at Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Harold Lloyd film program.
Carl Davis will conduct his compositions at Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's… (Richard Cannon )

Though Carl Davis has composed scores for such films as 1981's "The French Lieutenant's Woman," over the past three decades, he's become one of silent cinema's greatest champions, composing and conducting scores for countless silent films as well as orchestrating existing scores for such silents as Charlie Chaplin's 1931 masterwork"City Lights."

In March, the U.S.-born, London-based composer earned kudos for conducting the 46-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony in his score for the restored 5 1/2-hour version of Abel Gance's 1927 epic "Napoleon." Davis' latest gig is conducting his scores for two Harold Lloyd comedies — 1927's "The Kid Brother" and the 1920 short "High and Dizzy" — at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Silent Film Gala at UCLA's Royce Hall Sunday evening.

For Davis, conducting an orchestra for a silent film presentation is vastly different than "conducting a ballet or an opera where the singers and dancers are very responsive to you and are flexible. Films are not. The role of the conductor, and in this case the composer, is to choose a piece of music or create a piece of music that the audience will think is right and helpful to the film. It is a partnership between the composer and the film."

Still, conducting for a silent movie has numerous pitfalls, most notably frame speed. "The films were made at a time when the projection speed was flexible," Davis said. "[The cameras] were hand-cranked, so it is up to us today to look at a film and say, 'How does it look? Is it too fast?' We are going to screen the two films much slower than the [usual] 24 frames. I think we are going to screen 'High and Dizzy' at 20 frames, and 'Kid Brother' is at 22. All of this is to make the actor look like they are behaving normally."

Davis has conducted his score to "The Kid Brother" countless times. His "High and Dizzy" score premiered in March in Luxembourg. "I am doing something very daring," said Davis with a laugh, noting that in the silent film era "there were no inhibitions about borrowing music; the whole world of classic music was open. I indulged myself with one of my favorite operatic arias from an opera called 'The Sleepwalker.' The finale of it is the most beautiful melody."

The annual silent film gala is a highlight of the year for LACO members.

"You feel so much more connected to the audience," said LACO's principal timpani Wade Culbreath. Instead of being on stage, the musicians are "on the low-level right next to the audience. We get a lot of feedback from the audience from their reactions, so it's a lot of fun. The audience is usually wrapped up in what's happening on the screen."

Tereza Stanislav, assistant concertmaster of LACO, said that during the performance "the orchestra is probably going to be pulling [Davis] around a little bit," she said. Frequently, the orchestra may get ahead or behind what's going up on screen.

"We have never been significantly off," Stanislav said. "The music goes by very quickly. There is a lot of information to take in."

Usually, the conductor for the gala has only two rehearsals with the orchestra, and only one of those is with the actual film. But this time around, LACO is "being very generous to me," said Davis. "I am going to have three. There is nothing we can't solve in that time."

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