Twice this week, the lights will dim at the Egyptian Theatre and relight a scene from the past—silent black and white movies, orchestral accompaniment and an organist on the Mighty Robert Morton Theatre Pipe Organ.
Thursday night, the Boise Philharmonic's Treasure Valley Youth Symphony takes the orchestral pit for its sixth annual Musical Movies Project. Led by Dr. David Saunders, the youth company will perform original scores written by Ben Model for Nell Shipman's Light on the Lookout (filmed in Priest Lake), Buster Keaton's One Week and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's Love.
Model, who is a silent film expert and accompanist at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, has licensed his compositions to the TVYS for five out of the project's six years in existence. However, this year will only be Model's second trip to Boise. While he's here, he'll fire up the theater's pipe organ for Love on Thursday, and then on Friday evening, Model will put on a second show, "Maid in Idaho: Nell Shipman Film Festival," which includes the Canadian actress's films The Grub-Stake and White Water.
According to Model, talk of a Nell Shipman performance with the youth symphony started two years ago during his first visit to Boise, and he's been working on the scores specifically for Boise ever since. All of the scores on Thursday and Friday are original compositions by Model, and all of the Shipman accompaniments were written specifically for his Boise engagements.
However, Model's job is more than that of a musician. In addition to being a composer, Model is a silent film expert who often introduces films with background information about its making and stars.
"There are a lot of accompanists who know a lot about film. It's just a passion of mine," says Model. "I'm driven by my desire to share these films with people."
And although Model has been collaborating with TVYS for several years now, he's not exactly the national go-to composer for youth symphonies nationwide. After complications the first year with a score TVYS had licensed from another composer, Model says the company found him on the Internet and used a score he'd already written. Since then, the company has stuck with Model and he's stuck with them. In fact, Model says he only works with a youth symphony once a year—in Boise.
"They're less jaded than professional musicians," confesses Model. "The first orchestra I wrote one of my scores for, I actually had to edit the film down and make it five minutes shorter because the musicians were concerned the film was cutting into their stage time." The film was Charlie Chaplin's The Adventurer and when the TVYS used the score, Model says he had to write another five minutes of music to fill out the score to the movie's original length.
"My priorities are more about the film and not my own ego in terms of the music," he says. "I always feel that when the lights fall, I'm working for Mr. Chaplin or Mr. Keaton, and I want the audience to enjoy the film as much as [the filmmaker] would want them to."
In addition to whatever appeal working with a youth symphony holds for Model, the Egyptian Theatre itself is a major draw for the composer.
"For any composer of any kind of music, getting your work performed is a real honor, and to have it performed in such a rare and beautiful treasure as the Egyptian is a real thrill for me." Model says he may live in NYC, but the one theater organ in the city is in Radio City Music Hall—a venue that's not exactly hospitable to an organist who wants to plunk down for an afternoon of practice. The Egyptian's organ, however, is a rarity not only because of its age but also because it's almost entirely original.
"The fun thing about seeing a silent film there is that it puts you in a time machine," says Model. "Not only are you seeing a silent film the way it was meant to be seen, but you're seeing it in the exact same space looking exactly like it did 80 years ago, and no plasma TV screen and digitally restored HD-DVD in your house is going to duplicate that."
Musical Movies Project: Thursday, Feb. 7, 7:30 p.m. Seniors/children $7, adults $12, family pass $31 (two adults, four children). For information or tickets, call 208-344-7849 or visit BoisePhilharmonic.org. "Maid in Idaho": Friday, Feb. 8. Students/seniors $5, adults $10. For information or tickets, visit BoiseState.edu. Both events at the Egyptian Theatre, 700 W. Main St., 208-345-0454.