The first thing I noticed after walking into the packed Howard Performing Arts Center (HPAC) lobby was the life-sized cardboard cutout of Charlie Chaplin standing next to a display highlighting this season of the Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra’s (SMSO) performances. Before this concert, I hadn’t ever heard the SMSO perform or seen one of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic silent films before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I wove through the crowd to find my seat, I could hear the musicians warming up and picked out themes that I would recognize during the actual performance.
The orchestra fell to silence as Norma Tirado came onstage and introduced herself as the president of the SMSO’s board of directors. She briefly introduced the orchestra, and shared a few bits of trivia: Charlie Chaplin once took third place in a Chaplin lookalike contest, and Jackie Coogan, who played “The Kid” in the movie the orchestra was about to perform alongside, grew up to play Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.
People were still filing into the front rows of the HPAC as the SMSO’s music director and conductor, Robin Fountain, walked on stage.
“Just in time to sing the National Anthem,” he quipped.
Sweeping his hands upwards in just a preview of his animated conducting, he prompted the audience to stand and sing along to the orchestra.
With no further announcement needed, the credits of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” began, projected onto a screen above the orchestra. I was surprised at how full the orchestra sounded as it began to play along, and was able to appreciate the HPAC’s acoustics even more than I have in the past. I realized that dialogue that couldn’t be implied by the actions of the characters would be substituted with fancy white text on a black background.
The first of these text images read, “A picture with a smile—and, perhaps, a tear.”
Conductor Fountain directed with precise, short motions as the orchestra played a fast-paced, mischievous piece to go along with the escapades of Charlie Chaplin, who tries to avoid the responsibility of taking in an abandoned baby with his humorous, crow-footed stride and exaggerated movement. Fountain then transitioned into wider, sweeping motions as the music mellowed and sweetened, and Chaplin’s character decided to take in the child that would become the titular “kid” of the production.
The movie’s opening text proved to be extremely accurate. The audience laughed as Chaplin’s character fed the Kid milk out of an old teapot hung from a string, as the five-year-old Kid smiled goofily at his adoptive father’s antics, and at Chaplin’s strange dream sequence containing fighting angels and flying dogs. They gasped and went silent as Chaplin and the Kid were separated, the main plot point of the film, and (spoilers!) smiled with relief as the two were reunited. The concert ended majestically with a timpani roll and crescendo, Chaplin and the Kid being welcomed into the home of the boy’s biological mother.
I was very impressed with the combination of the silent film and the orchestra performance. I have been to plenty of concerts at the HPAC, but this stood out as one of the more engaging performances due to the juxtaposition of the film and the live music. It was difficult to choose whether to watch the skilled musicians, the conductor adding variations in tempo and dynamics with a wave of his hands, or to keep my eyes on the film which, despite being first shown in 1921, is hardly outdated with its quirky humor and engaging drama.