The Tramp, never forgotten
Bohemian National Hall
“Charlie Chaplin’s Smile”
Philippe Quint (violin, presentation), Jun Cho (piano)
Carami Hilaire (soprano), Carlos Canedo, Leah Barsky (dancers)
P. Quint, C. Canedo, L. Barsky
The blurb said that:
“To celebrate Chaplin’s 133rd birthday (he was born on April 16, 1889), we present Philippe Quint’s critically‑acclaimed multimedia program. Inspired by the violinist’s successful 2019 album Chaplin’s Smile (Warner Classics), the program returns to New York City for its premiere in an all‑new format. Quint’s unique arrangements of songs from Chaplin’s most celebrated films (Modern Times, City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux, The Kid, Limelight, and A King in New York) are interspersed with rare footage of the actor, along with still images and video clips from his films. The program also features music by composers who influenced Chaplin’s musical style – Brahms, Debussy, Stravinsky, and Gershwin.”
So, on the page, it didn’t look like a particularly inventive combination of violin favorites and arrangements of works written by one of the greatest personalities of the cinema, Charlie Chaplin. Well, the old saying about judging the book by its cover was never more applicable!
The program was designed with great care and quite a bit of preparation by the violinist Philippe Quint who, in addition to being a superb instrumentalist, feels very much at home as MC and a good one at that. What Quint achieved was an easy rapport with the audience without a condescending attitude or being, as some MCs are guilty of, too “cute”. His elegant presentation of the information was of the highest caliber, for it was enlightening yet never too long or detailed, the comments were humorous, dead‑pan and artfully delivered. The whole impressed the audience as spontaneous but the texts, the music, and slide projection were perfectly prepared and seamlessly presented.
As for Chaplin and the music he composed for his films, it is hard to fathom how the man, reared in English music halls and who played several instruments by ear but could not read music, was able to compose the music for his films beginning with City Lights (1931). Mr. Quint reminded us about the well‑known fact that Chaplin was relying on musical assistants to help him translate his ideas into scores and then soundtracks. Music played an especially outsized role in his first sound features, which were essentially silent films set to music, and he and his collaborators later won an Oscar for the score of Limelight.
There were numerous anecdotes about Charlie Chaplin’s life and about his love for music, which as I learned a long time ago, gained enormous popularity and some of the tunes became hits. For example, the score of Modern Times contains some of the most familiar music that Chaplin ever wrote. Its love theme was later given lyrics and became the popular song Smile and also the title to Mr. Quint’s presentation. It is interesting to find that Chaplin viewed the end of the silent era warily and wrote in his autobiography that “one happy thing about sound was that I could control the music, so I composed my own.” He explained that he wanted “elegant and romantic music” to contrast with his Tramp character, which sometimes led him to spar with his musical assistants and arrangers. “They wanted the music to be funny,” Chaplin wrote. “But I would explain that I wanted no competition for my acting, I wanted the music to be its counterpoint of grace and charm, to express sentiment, without which a work of art is incomplete.” So Chaplin, ignorant as far as writing music down, would sing the tunes and themes to his arrangers and sometimes indicate the “style” of this or another composer that he wanted to emote or indicate. So he indeed could request a “bit of Tchaikovsky” here and a “bit of Puccini” there, but at last he had a real musical picture in his head.
I am sure that being able to play violin and sing, Chaplin must not have too many difficulties making his musical ideas pretty clear for his arrangers. There were some who thought Chaplin, by giving credit to his collaborators, was “selling himself incredibly short” and that his distinctive style could be heard throughout many of his films. Chaplin’s son wrote about his father and his musical assistants, that during months‑long sessions his highly demanding way “wore them all out”. One of them, David Raksin, who was one of the best film composers in the business, claims “... we spent hours, days, months in that projection room, running scenes and bits of action over and over, and we had a marvelous time shaping the music until it was exactly the way we wanted it,” Chaplin’s collaborators were some of the Hollywood’s greatest film composers and Chaplin himself sometimes would play down his own contributions, saying that all he was doing was “la‑la’d” (croon) the tunes.
Mr. Quint chose very judiciously the music for his presentation and each work would bear relation to some incident in Chaplin’s life. The piano piece “Clair de lune”, here offered in a very attractive violin‑piano arrangement, was preceded by a story of the already very famous Chaplin meeting Debussy, whose piano piece influenced some of the future film music.
In another instance, relating a meeting between Chaplin and Igor Stravinsky when a possibility of cooperation of the two was proposed by Chaplin, Mr. Quint commented that the controversial subject of the film was rejected by Stravinsky and nothing came out of their collaboration But what if? So here we had Stravinsky Tango in yet another spirited interpretation of Quint and his superb pianist Jun Cho.
I have not mentioned as yet the name of this young man, but it is my opinion that Mr. Quint found an ideal partner in him: a splendid instrumentalist, experienced collaborator, careful listener and equally at home in all and any repertory.
The tango didn’t disappear from the narration: Chaplin was very fond of the dance form, apparently also a wonderful dancer and for another musical example we heard an arrangement of the tango from Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, this time accompanied by a pair of splendid dancers: Carlos Canedo & Leah Barsky. So we had some kind of a rare double‑feature: the dancers and a violinist equally persuasive in their respective parts.
Another funny example of Chaplin borrowing from other, more famous composers involved George Gershwin, whose music needless to say must have to a degree influenced Chaplin’s own creativity. Mr. Quint, in his understated manner, reported that “whereas Mr. Chaplin would borrow Gershwin tunes, Mr. Gershwin reciprocated by borrowing Mr. Chaplin’s wife, famed actress Paulette Goddard, albeit returned after only three months”. For an example of Gershwin's original tunes we were exposed to yet another “surprise‑guest”, this time Ms. Carami Hilaire, who sang for us the famous “Summertime” (from the opera Porgy and Bess) and the equally celebrated song I got rhythm. Alas, with her renditions, again superbly accompanied by Mr. Cho, Ms. Hilaire, assured her audience that singing Gershwin is not an easy task.
The absolute tour‑de‑force was the concluding number of the program, when Mr. Quint attempted – and succeeded!!!! – to synchronize the video clip of the barber‑shop scene from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator with the Brahms Hungarian Dance that originally would have accompanied that scene. It was again a very fine performance ideally synchronized with the film and let me assure you dear reader: it was not a simple accomplishment! Apparently Chaplin, who was very fond of playing the violin, reported that he would practice for several hours a day. Being left‑handed, he would use his bow with the left hand and likewise had his instrument re‑strung. I guess we love him not only for that...
Mr. Quint, throughout his presentation, offered us an impeccable command of violin, dead‑on intonation, a style of playing perfectly suited to that particular repertory and the gorgeous sound of his violin, which happens to be a Strad; that helps too! He is an elegant player, who absorbed the old‑fashioned manner of playing but does it with the authority of his own; nothing in his interpretations of several compilations of Chaplin’s tunes sounded mannered or self‑conscious; now he owns this repertory. Equally impressive was the presentation, very well written and delivered narrative, seamless traversal between music and speech, well‑thought‑out and sensible choice of pictures and video clips and varied arrangements, including the previously mentioned decision to include “surprise guests” especially as great as the pair of the tango dancers.
If one would be asked to give an example of the “music‑in‑context”, one could not come up with a better illustration than Mr. Quint’s presentation of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. And thus we arrived at the end of one more bull’s‑eye presentation of the ASPECT chamber music series.