‘Chaplin’s Masterpiece: Modern Times’ at The Baltimore Symphony at Strathmore by Keith Tittermary

In 1936, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in his final silent movie, Modern Times. His trademark character, The Little Tramp, with his toothbrush mustache and bowler hat would make his final appearance in this film. (Although a similar character appears in Chaplin’s later film The Great Dictator, he has stated that it is not in fact the same character). Modern Times is listed in the Library of Congress’ inaugural class of The National Film Registry in 1989, and is considered to be a culturally important film that defined not only Hollywood in the 1930s, but possible Chaplin’s entire career. Everyone is aware of Chaplin and his “renaissance man” style of filmmaking, but one overlooked fact is that Chaplin, while not a trained musician, composed the score to all of his films, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, under the superb direction of Marin Alsop, played the score live in perfect timing to the film that was being shown.

Charlie Chaplin in 'Modern Times.'
Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times.’

Chaplin was self-taught on piano and cello and developed a passion for music at a young age. When composing the film score, he utilized great motifs for the themes of the factory, the jail, and what would become his signature tune, the love story between the tramp and the gamine (played be his then wife, Paulette Goddard). This simple motif, played expertly by the BSO string section, is famous for its sung version by Nat King Cole, “Smile.” Chaplin’s score is exquisite by all accounts, and is a true testament to the brilliant mind of Charlie Chaplin.

In Saturday night’s concert, the BSO, in their “dressed down” attire of all black, started Chaplin’s score majestically and with great ease, as Alsop effortlessly conducted the ninety minute concert in perfect harmony with the movie. Never during the film did the orchestra skip a beat and each meticulous sound cue was completely in sync with the film. And as a testament to Alsop’s conducting, the BSO let the film shine and did not overshadow the film, but did as all great film scores do: enhance it. The sections of the orchestra each provided it’s only subtle accompaniment and never became drowned out the action, albeit silent, of the film.

According to program notes, the BSO and Alsop in particular, are very passionate about film scores and was a very unique experience to hear the pristine score played so beautifully. Next up on the BSO film score itinerary is Bernstein’s West Side Story, and I am sure that Alsop and her expertise in film music will live up to all expectations.

Modern Times may not be so modern anymore, some 77 years after its premier, but the score is eternal and the BSO did Chaplin proud by playing it with intensity and passion.

The lyrics to his song “Smile” states:
“Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking.
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by.”

And the BSO gave us every reason to smile.

Poster - Modern Times_02

Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Chaplin’s Masterpiece: Modern Times played one-night only on April 27, 2013 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future events, check their calendar.

Watch Modern Times.


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