San Francisco Symphony gives voice to silent film

An orchestra playing along to a silent era film — sounds like a formula to draw an elderly crowd. This stigma is the unfortunate culprit which keeps a younger audience from a truly rewarding experience of attending a show at the symphony or watching cinema older than their parents (or in this particular case, even grandparents).

On April 12 at the Davies Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Symphony played along to the Charlie Chaplin classic “City Lights,” a film that the American Film Institute declared the greatest American romantic comedy of all time. There was no introduction nor was there an intermission, something many would consider an anomaly for a symphony performance. However, those decisions ultimately helped with not interrupting the replication of the magic of Old Hollywood.

The film’s score was true to the original, but as it is with any live performance, it felt more impactful. Compared to an epic action film or film noir, the lighter-hearted soundtrack of a romantic comedy shone a spotlight on the string instruments rather than the brass and percussion. The relationship blossoming between the tramp (Charlie Chaplin) and the blind girl (Virginia Cherrill) was relayed through every strum of the harp and stroke of the strings.

The audience reacted with roaring laughter to the running gags, particularly ones with diegetic sound that the orchestra engineered (such as a kazoo when someone was “talking” on-screen). There is a special relationship that exists between a collective audience in a theatre with no pausing and the lights blacked out. Once a live orchestra is added, the relationship reaches a new plane; the audience reacts to the film and the orchestra and the orchestra in turn reacts to the audience’s cacophony.

At times, it became clear that they loved the film — at one point, a brass player dropped his book from his music stand while laughing at one of the film’s many gags. This created a stronger connection between the audience and the orchestra: it was a collective sharing something they love with a collective that wanted to experience that work in the most optimal way possible.

Perhaps it is a forgotten art to pursue something that evokes an emotional response in-person rather than online. For many, the laptop screen is as satisfying as the movie theater screen. A stream on Spotify is no different from a live band. A courtship that takes place in-person (like the one between the tramp and the blind girl in “City Lights”) without Facebook or texting seems dated. However, experiencing them as they happen undoubtedly has a different feeling, one that should feel worthy of pursuing.

Contact Ephraim Lee at [email protected].