Cleveland Orchestra: Chaplin's City Lights—
a conversation with conductor William Eddins
By Mike Telin
When Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights premiered in 1931, the film was an immediate box office hit. Today City Lights is considered by many to be “the perfect marriage of music and film, filled with comedy, romance, and heartache, justifying its ranking as the American Film Institute's 11th Greatest Film of All Time”.
As David Robinson writes on CharlieChaplin.com, “The premieres were among the most brilliant the cinema had ever seen. In Los Angeles, Chaplin’s guest was Albert Einstein; while in London Bernard Shaw sat beside him. City Lights was a critical triumph. All Chaplin’s struggles and anxieties, it seemed, were compensated by the film which still appears as the zenith of his achievement and reputation.” Chaplin is also credited as the film's director, writer, starting actor, and composer. And Chaplin goes un-credited as the film's producer and editor. “Charlie Chaplin was a master of everything. He was a Da Vinci man. City Lights is an example of a master at the height of his genius,” says conductor William Eddins, who will lead the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall on Saturday, March 31 at 8:00 in a performance of Chaplin’s score during a screening of City Lights.
“This is fun! It’s also something different. It’s not Brahms 3rd symphony or The Rite of Spring. It requires a different mindset, it requires a different set of skills, and the impact is different from a “normal concert,” Maestro Eddins told us by telephone, and indeed William Eddins, who currently serves as music director of the Edmonton Symphony, is a man who seems to like to have a good time — just check out his website. Eddins is also not afraid of sharing his opinions, examples of which can be found on the Sticks and Drones, a blog that he writes with fellow conductor Ron Spigelman. And once I figured out that I had indeed reached Maestro Eddins and not my local pizza restaurant (that's how he answers the phone), I asked him if he had always had an interest in silent film.
William Eddins: NO! [laughing] But when I got to Eastman, more then thirty years ago, I got roped into playing in the Eastman-Dryden Orchestra, which was the silent film ensemble, and that’s when I started to develop a real interest in silent films and their music. We performed the music for so many great silent films, and it was just great fun. I really developed a love for the idiom.
Mike Telin: When did you first conduct the score to City Lights?
WE: It was when I was on staff at the Chicago Symphony that the head of artistic planning called me and asked if I would like to do City Lights, and I went “Yeah!” without ever having seen the film or heard the music. But because of my background, having played lot of silent film, I knew that this was going to be one of those interesting projects. So I got the film and the score and I thought, oh my, this is hard!
MT: I have to admit that I did not realize that Chaplin also composed.
WE: Chaplin was a composer, and a very fine violinist. He was also a very fine athlete. Anything that he wanted to do, he did and he did it well. Yes, he was a very accomplished musician and he worked with Arthur Johnston and Alfred Newman to orchestrate his ideas. But the core of the music is Charlie Chaplin, and that’s why it works so well with the film.
MT: What is difficult about conducting a silent film score?
WE: It’s complete lunacy when you are accompanying a silent film. Once the “go” button is pressed on the machine, you are enslaved to Mr. Chaplin for the next 88 minutes. There is no give and there is no take, you are locked into an external source. And it’s a matter of concentration.
But it’s fun and people really enjoy the experience of seeing Charlie on the big screen and having a live orchestra. During a lot of it you can hit the groove and let it go, and then there is 5% of it that will keep you up at night, muttering a lot of imprecations to various gods about why it is so bloody hard.
But it all works; sometimes the music dominates and sometimes it takes a back seat. And there are some very funny moments — especially in the brass and clarinets.
MT: What is the orchestration?
WE: Strings, clarinets, trumpets, trombones, percussion, piano and harp. We are talking about what would have fit into a pit.
MT: Do you have a favorite moment?
WE: There are three or four moments that are my favorites, and I’ll be looking over my shoulder watching the audience's reaction. I know what is going to happen and I can’t wait to see the look on people’s faces. You do get really caught up in this, and it’s a wonderful communal experience.
MT: Thanks so much for talking. Is there anything else you would like to add?
WE: Thank you, and I hope that people will come and just enjoy themselves because that is what I’m going to be doing!
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com March 27, 2012
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