Echoes of the Picture Palace | Nick Russoniello and the Golden Age Quartet

In a throwback to the days of vaudeville and the picture palace, Nick Russoniello and the Golden Age Quartet reawaken the Independent’s past and celebrate the great Charlie Chaplin in a concert that combines classic film and live music. Including pieces from Golden Age greats and new compositions, the afternoon was part history lesson and all entertainment.

Before the cinema took over the realm of public entertainment, vaudeville shows reigned supreme. As Nick Russoniello puts it, Rudy Wiedoeft was a master of the saxophone including the silly tricks and sound effects the instrument could produce. Opening with “Sax-o-Phun” by Wiedoeft, Russoniello with support from Daniel Rojas on the piano demonstrated a laughter effect and a unique tapping or plopping kind of effect like the twang of a rubberband on an original 1920s saxophone.

When film was first introduced, live musicians used to accompany the screenings where they played whatever they felt most suited the situation. A little later, collections of music were released for these live musicians where the pieces were grouped by mood to help sort out which piece to play during which scene. Russoniello and Rojas were joined by Paul Stender on cello and Julia Russoniello on violin to play a selection of these mood pieces by Erno Rapee and his collection of gruesome, grotesque, Western, fire fight, and love excerpts. These pieces were understandably evocative and reference the conventions of film soundtracks made predictable over decades.

To demonstrate even further the relationship between early film and music, Russoniello organised for a screening of the first film clip ever shot in Australia in 1896 of a man roller-skating in front of a crowd to which Rojas improvised a piano accompaniment. In another first, the quartet played the first music that was ever composed for film by Camille Saint-Saens. The excerpt included the backing track for the opening credits and introduction as well as the first scene of the film L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise from 1908. Russoniello remarked on how cinematic and contemporary the piece feels over 100 years later with its suspenseful piano and rolling conversation between the strings and saxophone which generates many moods with sudden, dynamic changes.

The final two pieces of the first half continued the theme of early film and music with a piece composed by Charlie Chaplin for the Great Dictator titled “Falling Star”. This piece seems to twinkle with a clean and romantic saxophone that one could easily imagine playing on a nighttime walk under the stars. “Perihelion Rag” from 1980s Australia takes a turn from the other pieces but Stephen Cronin’s composition plays like a quick parlour tune with a jazzy beat undercut with occasional tango energy that fits right in to the concert.

For the finale, the quartet played the accompanying soundtrack to the Charlie Chaplin film the Immigrant as composed by Russoniello. The film sees Chaplin playing a man on a ship and then in America getting into various comic predicaments including winning a lot of money, giving it away to a beautiful woman, and then not having enough to impress another woman with lunch. Russoniello’s composition took in scenic soundscapes and more particular sound effects including Chaplin blowing his nose. After the first half of the concert exploring the history of film and music, to see and hear the effect of the combination of live period music and a classic of the silent silver screen was a pleasure.

There is something uniquely charming about the saxophone and the glitz of the cinema’s Golden Age that came wonderfully to life with Nick Russoniello and the Golden Age Quartet. From Rojas’s enthusiastic and affective style on the piano to the smooth sax and tense, tight strings, the quartet are appropriately splendid.

Echoes of the Picture Palace ran at the Independent Theatre on September 29th

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