Review: William Perry’s Music for Great Films of the Silent Era Part Two
With a hop, skip and a jump, and a dance step or two thrown in, it’s easy to envision a stage production of this CD. It could very possibly make for glorious musical theatre. The names on the kino marquee bordered in flashing lights could be after the style of the CD liner notes cover photo:
William Perry’s Music for Great Films of the Silent Era Part Two
Wallis Giunta (Mezzo)
John Brancy (Baritone)
Timothy Hutchins (flute)
Nick Byrne (ophicleide)
Michael Chertock (piano, organ)
Paul Phillips (conductor)
RTE National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland)
Maybe a production like this would open off-Broadway, or in the best little British jazz club this side of 1920s Singapore. The sidewalk standee with a montage of players, would include the burnished vermillion-redhead, Wallis Giunta, her Rapunzeline tresses blowing wildly in the wind, and maybe she’s gowned in lush, royal verdant. With a few back-up singers, a chorus line and full orchestra pit, Wallis could perform as the eight different actresses she embodied in song from the CD playlist.
In the reality that is the CD, Wallis’ charismatic, enthusiastic energy undergirds her tracks, and her extraordinary artistry lights the fuse to ensuing musical fireworks. With a moody sense of history, she raises her vocal arms in an inviting embrace, reaching above the clouds in song to charm with all the silvery-golden nuances and highlights she finds, and she also stretches out to the sides in climactic fury to catch the intense, darker tumults of the drama. In the entertaining, intricate and skilled framework of talent that includes the cast and orchestra, Wallis Giunta is free to be “the Mezzo with the magic.”
Dreams do come true on Broadway or the silver screen, but this review centres mostly upon Wallis Giunta and her exemplary vocal contributions to composer William Perry’s personal tribute to some of the greatest heroines of silent film and related music included on Music for Great Films of the Silent Era - Part Two CD.
Track 1 for Lillian Gish, (Orphans of the Storm, 1921) * Wallis has a remarkable capacity for sensitively and concisely interpreting the storyline of lyrics and melody as one entity. She expertly imparts the emotions of crisis while seeking shelter from the storm of the French Revolution. The listener experiences the fear and pride of patriotism and duty, loss of innocence and trust, the blessed rescue, the later soft-edged recollections of the horrors of “the storm,” and the sentimentality of making new memories to cherish and the heartwarming bliss of post-war normalcy and family life. Her succinct timing and phrasing, and gently decreasing vocal for the last part of the song, has you visualizing that growing-smaller circle of the film fading out into the end credits.
Track 2 - for Mary Pickford (Pollyanna, 1920) * In direct contrast to the first track, this song exudes an unquelled “skipping down the sidewalk” joy that all future Pollyannas of the world should espouse. Life is exhilarating, brimming with promises of happiness and the rewards of taking chances. That thrilling scenario needs no words, really, as Wallis vocalizes into the finale with cheery, positive attitude after singing, “telling your fears ‘Go fly a kite’.”
Track 3 - Greta Garbo (A Woman of Affairs, 1928) * With warm and sultry overtones, it’s still a cool jazz rendition meant especially for those whose hearts are filled with longing. The “mind’s eye” soon picks up on the sound of a smouldering torch song as it drifts from the recital hall beginning into the lonely hearts, art deco smoke-filled jazz bar in the latter half, “seeing” the voluptuous red-haired chanteuse lounging with an elbow along the piano top, languidly caressing those minor notes. All the while, the powdered dance floor sways to the beat of a heady, flamboyant kaleidoscope of fluttery flapper skirts and crisp tuxedos. Wallis really opens the treasure chest and exults in the era’s stylish, distinctive sound. This gal can sing the jazz and the blues with the best any day.
Track 4 - Gloria Swanson (Fine Manners, 1926) * This number has fun with etiquette, spilling over with fanciful, witty and occasionally naughty lyrics in the finest tradition of early stage musicals. What is your ought and/or your delight? Listen closely, it’s a sign of the times list - opera, art, high fashion, vivaciously quipped in fabulous rhyming lyrics emphasizing all that high society was back in the 1920s, and all bang-on in its particular enunciation and manner. To top it all off, what a fabulous finish line. Wallis has it hands down, with poise, drama and asking the perfectly posed rhetorical question - “Aint I the Deal?” Yes, she definitely is!
Track 5 - Vilma Banky (The Night of Love, 1927) * With its tender, tearfully romantic violin and piano intro, this song recalls those great old restaurant table-to-table serenades, with snippets here and there of traditional-sounding Slavonic dances spiced with the tapping of a tambourine. Overall, the melody brings to mind many great musical films such as the Noel Coward-scored Bittersweet (1940), and most any movie musical starring Hungarian soprano Ilona Massey. The song celebrates the free-living, passionate souls of wandering gypsy minstrels and dancers. And Wallis hits that one brief perfect flat in the phrase “for every night will be a wondrous night of love” to exquisite effect in the lyrical scale-climb almost near the end; the rising vocal at the song’s very end is breathtakingly gorgeous, too.
Track 6 - Betty Bronson (Peter Pan, 1924) * For a short time in training with the Ballet Russe actress Betty represented in this song does everything possible to become a Hollywood star by pining and preparing to clinch the role of Peter Pan. (Bronson would later go on to play another fairy tale character, Cinderella.) Wallis sings her story with “catch-your-breath” excitement, depicting an ingenue who has teeming angst and starry dreams in her eyes, and who then suddenly discovers as the lyrics say, “on the marquee of some kino, you may see my name in lights.” The orchestra intuitively follows Wallis’ compelling inflections unfolding along with Betty’s ecstatic emotions.
Track 7 - Pearl White (The Perils of Pauline, 1914) * By her voice and fully allied with the orchestra, Wallis parts those theatre curtains with white-knuckle drama and anticipation. The melody and lyrics have the headlong onrush of being at the edge of the waterfall, encouraging the listener to graphically imagine the next peril around the bend. Will Pearl be rescued this time? was likely the question at the time on every theatre-goer’s mind when watching instalments of her “cliffhanger” shorts. Wallis’ natural enthusiasm and acting talent enhances her delivery, which is pleasantly reminiscent of Ethel Merman at her top form.
Track 8 - Janet Gaynor (Seventh Heaven, 1927) * Romantic lyrics were representative of popular songs in the 1920s, with the focus on searching for the sweetest, perfect love and idyllic happiness. It’s easy to perceive Wallis inwardly clasping her hands in a plea as the story rolls along sad roads of tragedy and war, through long years and precious stolen moments, and then onto the metaphoric climbing - that so very desperate climbing of stairs - that culminates with time-stopping “was it yesterday, is it today, or is it the wished-for tomorrow of dreams?” climactic memories of that one perfect love finally found. You will certainly verge into tears listening to the last tumultuous minute of such a love, sung about by Wallis with tender compassion, a love that could only be rediscovered in that misty dimension of the heart known as Seventh Heaven.
Track 9 - What would become known one day as Summer Nocturne for Flute and Orchestra was originally composed as the score for the screening of Three Wise Fools (1923) for a MOMA retrospective of Director King Vidor in 1972. In 1988, Perry finally recorded this grand theme. Now included on this 2014 CD, it sweeps at a natural point into a type of splendid overture/entre act that would have been used yesteryear to precede opening credits, or bridge parts one and two of many epic and lengthy films screened at theatres. Listening now in the car or at home, go to that drive-through, or make yourself a coffee or tea, pop some more popcorn, put a few more macarons on that pretty china saucer while the lovely “intermission” plays. This section of the CD, and really, the entire CD, can be enjoyed anywhere and anytime, perhaps with an extra tea biscuit or an exalted brandy.
Tracks 10, 11, 12, 13 are Perry’s instrumental compositions for orchestra and ophicleide (a unique and once common horn). The Blue, Military, Pastoral and Latin songs hail back to various styles of background and incidental music that once provided atmosphere and conveyed emotion, augmented location and era settings, and fit the bill to enrich silent film scenes when needed. Suggestive notes augmented the falling tear, the hesitant flutter of eyelashes, and the trembling bottom lip. The music was part actor in these contexts.
Track 14 - The grand finale of the CD, Hearts of the World was inspired by the re-score William Perry had written for D.W. Griffith’s 1918 WWI film of the same name. Despite the historical significance of that film, with many cameo appearances by real-life personalities (titled and common) and other actors (uncredited), it remains controversial to this day. Its original release on the tail end of The Great War was also a pot-stirrer, and literally disrupted ongoing peace talks at Versailles, and it was universally criticized for its uncommon depiction of brutal acts during the war. Before release, many cuts were made to the film by various cities and states in which it would be shown.
According to reviewer Matt Barry in his 2008 write-up:
“The copy of Hearts of the World that I viewed derived from a Killiam Shows print, available on VHS from Republic Pictures Home Video. This copy contains tinting and a nice piano score by William Perry. The restoration was performed by Karl Malkames. This video edition contains the original newsreel prologue, showing Griffith at work in the trenches and meeting with Prime Minister David Lloyd George. While the video itself is out of print, copies can probably still be located online or through independent outlets.”
As related on the Classical MPR site on November 1, 2014:
Perry was working as the music director at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in the early 1970s when he was asked to write a score for one of MoMA’s many archived silent films, Hearts of the World (1918), directed by D.W. Griffith.
“I had the great luxury of knowing and being able to communicate as necessary with Lillian Gish, who was the major star of the film,” Perry recalls, “and so I could get some hints about exactly what was happening in the shooting and how she felt the storyline would unwind … things that I could use in musical terms.”
Telling the epic story of World War I through the lens of the village is what Perry sees as the film’s strength. Says Perry, “There is sweep to the scenes, and that really required that the title music especially would have a sweep to it. Then it gets down and very personal … before we know it, war has actually swept through that village, changed it forever. And this is where the epic and the personal really come together.”
Returning now to my review, in summary, specially for 2014 to commemorate the beginning of WWI and honour those who served, Perry refashioned his original piano score into a full orchestral piece with narration and vocal accompaniment. He also recalled those insights he'd initially received directly in the early 1970s from the film’s star, Lillian Gish, enabling him to newly flesh out his composition with more authenticity and accuracy.
The resulting updated version is a superbly revitalized and appropriately sentimental homage to the original film and the memory of soldiers who had served in that most terrible Great War.
For this piece, John Brancy’s is a pleasant baritone, and he is also a masterful narrator; recounting singular horrors by battle and year, with Wallis’ mezzo a flourish of gentle musical sighs throughout the unfolding story, and all is accented by the punctuated score. When Brancy and Giunta harmonize in duet, as they crescendo to the melody and for the storyline, they call to mind, and daresay surpass, some of the greatest operatic singing teams of history.
The composition itself is so well formed, the singing so flawless, flowing and heartfelt, the orchestration so brilliantly delved deep into an era filled with enough hope to rise above the circumstances of war, that the 12 minute-plus track seems to carry the listener along swiftly and leaves them wanting to listen to much, much more.
Unquestionably, this is one of Perry’s masterpieces, this theme that “could have been” back in the early 1970s when it received 2 performances only at the limited MOMA screening of Hearts of the World and had never been recorded. On this occasion, Perry was able to take his original score, again recall Lillian Gish’s own insights, all his own memories of his father’s memories of serving in that war, and then pull everything together to achieve and preserve the authentic remembrances of a world that was veritably almost destroyed. Perry achieved the near-impossible in this one recording - preserving in melody and lyrics that rescue from total desolation that came about by humanity’s determination to regain peace through great sacrifice. It stands as a monument to the human spirit in a world today that sadly still knows the same horrors of war that the WWI generation had to endure and rise above.
With such themes of hope composed by William Perry, with Wallis Giunta and the others performing with unabashed sincerity, the Music for the Great Films of the Silent Era Part Two CD has succeeded in reminding that the arts of music and film have always joined hands in peaceful strength. Many a silent film carried a lonely heart in the theatre seat through the Great War. Many a song unconditionally held out hope. Everybody was holding on, waiting for that sunrise when peace would finally come. A day that would be a delightful melody in itself, with later days filled with celebration and remembering - all of which can be experienced to the full in Perry’s CD, Music for the Great Films of the Silent Era, Part Two.
Special commentary by conductor Paul Phillips about
William Perry's Music for Great Films of the Silent Era - CD Part 2
“All of the compositions included in Music for Great Films of the Silent Era, Part 2, are for soloists with orchestra, who performed on this recording with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra (Ireland). Mezzo soprano Wallis Giunta premiered Silent Film Heroines with the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra under my direction several months before this recording was made. She is also featured in Hearts of the World, which commemorates the centenary of World War I and is based on music that William Perry composed forty years earlier for the D.W. Griffith silent film of that title. Wallis is a wonderfully expressive singer with a gorgeous voice who is able to bring out every emotional facet of the music she sings. The rich baritone voice of John Brancy is also featured in Hearts of the World.
“Nick Byrne is an Australian trombonist in the Sydney Symphony, and following a motorcycle accident, took up the ophicleide, a mostly obsolete instrument similar to a saxophone played with a trombone mouthpiece. He soon became an ophicleide virtuoso and recorded a CD titled Back from Oblivion. When William Perry heard this recording, he fell in love with the ophicleide’s mellifluous sound and immediately decided to write a work for the instrument. I agreed to conduct the premiere of Brass from the Past: Concerto for Ophicleide and Orchestra, which took place in October 2013 with Nick Byrne performing with the Brown University Orchestra. The recording of William Perry's Music for Great Films of the Silent Era - CD Part 2 in Dublin with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra took place eight months later.
“Summer Nocturne for Flute and Orchestra is one of my favorite compositions by Bill Perry. I am very glad that it’s included on the CD and hope that this recording leads to many performances. Flute soloist Timothy Hutchins has a ravishing sound that brings out all the beauty of this gem.
“For me, the greatest challenge in making this recording was probably the fact that I came down with some sort of bug upon arriving in Dublin and became quite ill during the recording week. I lost most of my voice and had a nasty cough that I was very concerned about, since I didn’t want it to ruin any takes. There was one take I’ll always remember. It was going great when I felt a tremendous urge to cough. Somehow, I was able to suppress it, but it took more strength and will power than I thought I possessed. When the take ended, I needed a moment to recover, but was able to proceed. And we were able to use that take!“A short documentary about the recording was shot during the sessions. Because I’d mostly lost my voice, I don’t appear in it much, but there is a short clip of me talking. In it, I don’t sound like myself at all. (My voice was very raspy and about an octave lower than usual.) Recalling how hard it was to conduct some of the recording sessions because of my condition at the time, I am especially delighted with how well the CD turned out.”