Butte Symphony | Charlie Chaplin would be proud

Orchestra supplies symphonic backdrop to silent movies Feb. 22 at the Mother Lode

On Stage

The Butte Symphony turns to silent movie lore for the third concert of its 70th Anniversary Season, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22 at the Mother Lode Theatre.

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and KoKo the Clown come to life, as the Butte Symphony gives voice to their silent films.
Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and KoKo the Clown come to life, as the Butte Symphony gives voice to their silent films.

Three vintage films will be shown during “Silent Films and Their Music,” with the orchestra providing the musical accompaniment to the trials and tribulations of the silent stars. The films include: “The Immigrant” with Charlie Chaplin; “One Week” with Buster Keaton; and “Fadeaway” starring KoKo the Clown. As the actors fill the screen, the orchestra highlights the drama, comedy, joy and humor they portray through music.

The era of silent movies ranged from 1894 to 1929, when so-called “talkies” were introduced. According to the symphony’s executive director, Lowell Stuck, “Timing is everything!”

Although the scores of silent films were written to match the action on screen, the live orchestra “must keep up” and relies on the conductor to follow the action and the orchestra at the same time. “It’s a very delicate balance,” he adds.

A single organist typically kept pace with the original silent films. “Here, we have 55-plus musicians adjusting to the action, making the drama, and hoping for the best!”

The orchestra has some experience with this feat as it plays homage to silent films each summer with its annual Symphony Under the Silver Screen, performed outdoors in the atmospheric setting of the Original Mine Yard.

As a side note, Stuck points out that film star Charlie Chaplin, who rose to fame during the era of silent film, visited Butte five times and was also known to vacation in Montana. “He clearly had an affinity for the state,” Stuck says.

The Butte Symphony also offers its annual Children’s Concert on Friday, Feb. 21. The concert, open to all fifth graders in southwest Montana, introduces students to the sounds of a symphony orchestra and gives them the experience of attending a performance in a large concert auditorium.

“Conductor Luis Millan engages the audience with the orchestra in a way that leaves a lasting impact on the young future musicians,” says Stuck, who notes that the concert has become “one of the favorite activities of the year for both students and performers.”

The Butte Symphony was organized in 1950, and is now celebrating its 70th anniversary season. It remains the original – and oldest – symphony in the state and is comprised of volunteer musicians. One founding member, Pete Godtland, is still an active musician and continues to play his French horn with the symphony.

Conductor Luis Millan, a classical guitarist who also conducts several symphonic organizations and the opera program at the University of Montana in Missoula, is in his 10th season with the Butte Symphony. Stuck is new to the organization, having taken the reins in 2019 from Mark Hayden, who now sits on the board of directors. He comes from Portland, Ore., and was active in music events there, as well as at the University of Michigan.

Tickets to this weekend’s concert are $15-$40 and available online at buttearts.org/butte-symphony-series/ or by calling the Mother Lode box office, 406-723-3602.

For more information on the symphony and its offerings, visit buttesymphony.org or call 406-723-5590.