Charlotte Symphony brings extra pathos, humor to Chaplin‘s “City Lights”

Many actors have won Oscars for producing, directing or writing, but only one has been nominated for best score: Charles Chaplin, who won in 1973 for “Limelight” and shared the prize with Ray Rasch and Larry Russell. (The 1952 film’s L.A. release waited 20 years, hence the delayed prize.)

Chaplin wrote his own music for “City Lights,” the 1931 comedy-drama many critics consider his best. It reflects the movie it serves: sweetly sentimental in a few spots, wryly funny in many more, yet never underlining the action as heavily as scores often did in the first decade of sound.

To hear the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra play it live, accompanying a screening of the film at Belk Theater, is to realize what a multifaceted genius Chaplin was. I’d seen the picture, in which a tramp (Chaplin) tries to help a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) get money for an eye operation.

So I occasionally let my mind drift away from the big screen to take in aural details. I knew Chaplin as a producer, writer, director, editor and star – all of which he did on “City Lights” – and now I really listened for the first time to his score.

He allegedly could neither write nor read music, though that may be part of his legend. But he knew music. He borrowed the feeling of a contemporary, George Gershwin, for a jaunty early theme. He took a leaf from the emotional book of Giacomo Puccini, who died seven years earlier, for the pathos of a tender climax.

And he used his imagination. A laugh-out-loud boxing sequence gets not a rumbustious sound of brass or snickering commentary from the winds. Instead, as the Tramp skips away from a dangerous foe, a combination of flute, high strings and pizzicato cello has Mendelssohnian lightness.

Former assistant conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos, now music director of the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra in Texas, came back to lead the CSO’s last pops concert of the season. He seemed to be getting as much pleasure from the job as he was giving, and the orchestra played with gusto.