Buster Keaton Came to Life Thanks to Composer Jon Kull, Dallas Chamber Symphony

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In 1922, Buster Keaton, one of the reigning film comedians of the day, applied his deadpan, rubber-limbed  genius to the creation of one of the masterpieces of silent cinema, The Goat. Mistaken identity, cop chases, train-top sequences, tangled dog leashes, stairway and elevator stunts, and a bit of boy-meets-girl romance combine in this unfailingly engaging and funny depiction of the fate of the individual in a society that, even then, was succumbing to the relentless power of bureaucracy and technology.

Tuesday night at Dallas City Performance Hall, the audience at the concert of the Dallas Chamber Symphony witnessed a screening of The Goat enhanced with the premiere of a score newly composed by California-based Jon Kull and performed by the orchestra under the baton of artistic director Richard McKay.

Composer Kull’s career has so far focused on the orchestration of scores for Hollywood blockbusters including Avatar and King Kong; in this instance, his triple challenge included exact synchronization with the film, working within the sonic parameters of a small orchestra, and coming up with something stylistically compatible with a work created ninety years ago. Kull met these challenges magnificently, creating what is essentially a set of variations on two nicely malleable main themes stretched over the film’s 27-minute time span. To this listener’s ears, the echoes of Joplin’s ragtime and Gershwin’s tin-pan-alley jazz were the most evident influences, but with a twenty-first-century energy applied the spirit of Keaton.

The presentation of early silent film scores with newly-composed live accompaniment has become not only a signature of the Dallas Chamber Symphony but an intriguing addition to the local classical music scene; the ensemble’s tasks also includes the presentation of an international piano competition, the presentation of new silent film (via a juried competition) set to existing concert music, and most importantly, the presentation of concert music for small orchestra. Before the presentation of The Goat on Tuesday, the orchestra and McKay fulfilled that last function with performances of two interestingly parallel works, Hindemith’s Kammermusik No. 2 of 1922, and American composer Paul Moravec’s Chamber Symphony of 2003. The Hindemith work offered traditional symphonic form miniaturized into a tight, concentrated structure; its humor, sometimes breathtaking lyricism, and gentle jazziness made it an ideal companion piece for the contemporaneous Keaton film. The Moravec work likewise condensed symphonic form, somewhat similarly to the Hindemith but with a greater tendency to look back to the romantic era, with sweeping cadences and tunefulness—maybe a bit surprising in a work written eighty years later, but certainly effective.

The repertoire for the evening fit together nicely, making its point not so much through contrast but through common ground. Conductor McKay and the small ensemble of fourteen musicians pulled off the performance with style and precision, proving once again the value of the Dallas Chamber Symphony to Dallas’ musical community.

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