A renewed interest in the history and preservation of silent film has yielded such celebrations as the second annual Toronto Silent Film Festival, taking place in various venues from March 30-April 7. Historically, screenings of silent films have invariably featured live musical accompaniment, a tradition this festival keeps alive.

52_o__mearaAmong the featured musicians this year will be William O’Meara, one of Toronto’s preeminent organists, who has to date accompanied over 200 silent films around the world!

What is it about silent film that speaks to O’Meara?

“I studied improvisation just as thoroughly as composed music and was lucky to have a teacher, William Wright at U. of T., whose instruction methods in improvisation class required disciplined application of form, structure and counterpoint to improvisations. I’ll never forget the thrill of being able to improvise a decent four-part fugue, keeping all the parts, structure, counterpoint and harmonic progressions organized in my head a few bars ahead of my fingers. After that, free-style improvisation was a breeze! The marriage of my improvisation skills and silent films came about through two events: a request from the ROM in the late 1980’s to accompany some Eastern European silent films as part of the Precious Legacies exhibit and subsequently, the encouragement of a filmmaker/musician friend who suggested I apply my improvisation skills for silent film accompanying. Not seeing any opportunities though, I produced a few silent film screenings here in Toronto and Calgary, thoroughly enjoyed the experience, received positive feedback, and the rest as they say is history. Silent film accompanying has been a rewarding and fascinating part of my career as a musician for over 20 years.”

How does O’Meara prepare for these gigs?

“Preparation is two-fold. The first is ongoing and long-term preparation. Just like a soloist who practises his/her repertoire daily, whether there is a concert engagement in a week or two months, I likewise practise my improvisation skills regularly. Harmonic tricks, chord progressions, melodic patterns – the list is endless and limited only by imagination. The second form of preparation is more immediate: preview the film as many times as possible and work out some musical themes or motifs relating to characters or situations in the film. These motifs will provide the musical structure, giving form to my improvisations and linking them together. The most challenging and rewarding films to accompany are, for lack of a better word, “serious” films by such masters as Lubitsch, Ozu, Dreyer, Lang and others. The universality and timelessness of the subject matter is like a porthole to musical imagination.”

O’Meara’s advice:

“To be artistic, the accompaniment to a silent film must always play second fiddle to the film. Regardless of its musical style, the improvisation or a composed score should play off of the rhythm, pacing and structure of the film. Otherwise, the music becomes the show, not the film.”

The WholeNote ETCeteras cover announcements, lectures, masterclasses, screenings and more! Send items of interest by the15th of the preceding month to etc@thewholenote.com.

Edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney

• John Weinzweig, “The Dean of Canadian Composers” and stalwart champion of the arts, died in 2006 at the age of 93. Last year it was my privilege to be part of a distinguished team working on the latest addition to the annals of Canadian musicology, “Weinzweig: Essays on His Life and Music” edited by John Beckwith and Brian Cherney (Wilfrid Laurier University Press). You will find a full review in these pages in an upcoming issue, but I wanted to say a few words about the launch of this important volume which took place at a lavish event in the foyer of Koerner Hall on January 13.

With both editors and most of the more than a dozen contributors present, and soprano Mary Lou Fallis presiding over the festivities, the event was charged with emotion. We heard testimonials from Weinzweig’s sons Paul (who in a witty reminiscence modestly claimed his father’s infatuation with dissonance was a result of an excruciating piano performance he gave in the presence of his father’s peers as a youngster) and Daniel, who has been a moving force in keeping his father’s legacy in the public eye (including a new centenary initiative – contact weinzweig100@gmail.com for details).

The highlight of the event was the audition of several Weinzweig compositions: selections from the 1989 piano cycle Micromotions performed by Cheryl Duvall, a 2010 graduate of the master’s program at the U of T Faculty of Music; and Divertimento No. 2 with Hugo Lee, an outstanding young oboist from Unionville High School for the Arts ably accompanied by the school’s string ensemble under the direction of editor Beckwith’s son Larry. The performances culminated with the mistress of ceremonies, Canada’s darling “Diva on a Moose” accompanied by Peter Tiefenbach, treating us to an updated staging of “Hello Rico” from Private Collection.

John Weinzweig was a vocal activist whose main concern was making the music of our time and place available without compromise. It bodes well for the future that a new generation is being exposed to, and embracing, this music of our recent past.

—David Olds

Launching a book, CD, initiative, campaign, etc? Send items of interest to etc@thewholenote.com.

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