Audience members tonight at Davies Symphony Hall seeing the movie “City Lights” immediately will recognize the unforgettable face of Charlie Chaplin when he graces the screen.
Many may recognize the film’s memorable score as it begins to unfold via a live performance by the San Francisco Symphony.
Some may not know that the music that accompanies what many consider Chaplin’s greatest film was composed by the Little Tramp himself.
“He never put himself forth as an accomplished musician …,” says David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, who guest conducts the SFS in its performance of Chaplin’s original score in a series of concerts that begin today.
A longtime fan of Chaplin, Robertson, who is also principal guest conductor of London’s BBC Symphony Orchestra, says he’s been conducting Chaplin’s scores (often simultaneously with film screenings) for five years or so.
His love for Chaplin partly stems from his Hollywood-upbringing, something the conductor has in common with San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a Los Angeles native.
While Chaplin’s aptitude for musical composition comes as a surprise to many, Robertson says the world-famous mime’s ability to multi-task was just part of the job. Performers in the early 20th century had to be jack and janes-of-all-trades
Stan Laurel, before he became one half of Laurel and Hardy, played in a vaudeville band; the Marx brothers also enjoyed a reputation of excellent musicianship, especially Harpo, who was well-respected for his harp playing.
Although Chaplin kept relatively quiet about his compositions, Robertson says in studying the famous mime’s film scores, it becomes apparent that music was something in which he took great pride and invested much thought and effort.
“It is fascinating to see how he develops the themes over the course of the film,” Robertson says. “His accompaniments became extraordinarily complex.”
Despite being better known for his acting and filmmaking, music became a source of comfort and inspiration for Chaplin from a very early age.
Both his parents worked in music halls — his mother was a singer — and Chaplin as a young boy would often find himself alone in his childhood home while mom and dad, literally, were out singing for their supper.
Robertson says that not only do the Chaplin concerts pay tribute to the artist as a composer, they’re also welcomed by symphony musicians, who get to have as much fun as the audience. Having an audience doubled over with laughter is a treat they too rarely get to enjoy, Robertson says.
“I get upstaged by Chaplin many times, but that’s OK,” Robertson says.
To learn more about Chaplin, patrons may attend a pre-concert talk led by Stephen Salmons, artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, before each performance.
WHEN: 8 p.m. today, Friday and Saturday
WHERE: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
TICKETS: $31 to $114
CONTACT: (415) 864-6000 or www.sfsymphony.org