Last spring, the Pittsburgh Symphony devoted three weeks to a Paris Festival celebrating the work of Debussy, Ravel and other masters through various concerts, films and panels.
One new piece of that festival lives on now in full comic glory.
Pittsburgh jazz pianist Tom Roberts, whose long resume includes work on Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," was commissioned to score a pair of Charlie Chaplin silent shorts from 1916. With his favorite clarinetist, wife Susanne Ortner-Roberts, he accompanied the films, in tribute to the birthplace of world cinema, in the Heinz Hall Regency Room.
Since then, the Ortner-Roberts Duo has repeated the performance at the Leopold Mozart Conservatory in Germany; the James Simon Sculpture Studio; Mt. Lebanon Library, where he says the little Cub Scouts were in hysterics; and on a blocked-off North Side street on a sweltering 100-degree night.
Today and Saturday, they take the piece to Bar Marco in the Strip District for a special dinner show.
Both films stemmed from Chaplin's much-loved Mutual period, which produced a dozen short films from May 1916 to October 1917. The first, "One A.M.," is a solo piece that finds the Tramp coming home after too much to drink and battling with inanimate objects. The second is a lunchtime skating session in "The Rink" that begins gracefully and ends in pandemonium.
"At first, [the symphony] said, 'Could you improvise for some silent movies?' and I said, 'I could do that with my eyes closed,' " Mr. Roberts says. "But then I heard it was these Chaplin Mutuals and realized it would cheapen and destroy the films had you improvised to it."
Chaplin's genius extended to scoring his own films, but that didn't begin until later, and "he was very meticulous with how he did it," Mr. Roberts says.
And so, the pianist attacked this project with the same exactness.
"As I watched these, I got a legal pad, and I would re-create a script with every detail. I went through with a stopwatch and timed out each segment, the pratfalls, so I would know when he was falling down the stairs, when he gets hit in the face with something, etc., etc. And I would figure out when I needed to stretch a phrase, where various things would work. It was a ridiculous amount of work."
Rather than one flowing piece, his scores consist of "multiple little ideas" for the individual moments, ranging from waltzes and tangos to Brazilian Choro music and an Oriental foxtrot.
His guiding principle was "don't distract the listener. I want the viewer to be sucked into this little world and disappear into it." He recalls a critic saying that "watching a silent film should be like being in a dream."
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the subconscious played a significant role in his own creative process.
For "One A.M.," the pianist says, "Honestly, everything came to me in a dream. I would wake up in the morning, and I would have notes floating above me and melodies in my head, and I would sit there and scribble these things down."
This performance will have one added treat -- a taste of the music he's writing for a third Mutual, "The Pawnshop," that will consist of additional footage found by Dan Kamin, a Pittsburgh mime/comedian who has written two books on Chaplin and coached Robert Downey Jr. for the film "Chaplin."
Doing it at Bar Marco is part of his strategy of finding unlikely spots.
"What I try to do is take this into a place where people would not normally go to see a silent film," he says. "Maybe they're not even a silent film fan. And they see it, and they're like, 'Oh my God, Chaplin is remarkable!' "
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2576. First Published March 22, 2013 4:00 AM