Normally, I would feel about using the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 to accompany a silent movie the way I do about Bob Dylan doing a Chrysler commercial.

For the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s pops concert Sunday afternoon at Merrill Auditorium — “The Mark of Zorro”— I’m willing to make an exception. All that exaltation has to find a focal point, and what better image than Douglas Fairbanks rescuing a damsel in distress?

A substantial audience for a Sunday afternoon concert seemed to have a great deal of fun with the silent movie and the accompaniment of it, written, arranged and improvised at the piano by Rick Friend, one of the most noted practitioners of the art for many years. The orchestra was under the capable direction of Norman Huynh.

A few people left early, perhaps disappointed that the resources of the symphony orchestra were not used more generously.

Friend, to his credit, cued in the orchestra as much as he could — the church bells in the scene with the Franciscan Friar were particularly telling — but most of the music accompanying the action was improvised at the Steinway, with the orchestra reserved for set pieces, such as the Brahms Concerto, or excerpts thereof, during the finale.

The popular music from Albeniz’ “Asturias,” used early in the film, was particularly apt in setting the Spanish colonial atmosphere.


Sometimes the piano settings seemed a bit hackneyed, but how many ways are there of depicting galloping horses, or generating suspense? The customary sound is part of the attraction of reliving silent movies, although Friend did work in some contemporary-sounding tone clusters and other devices.

“The Mark of Zorro” also had a full-scale orchestral overture, composed by Friend, which demonstrated that he could have had a musical role in contemporary cinema as well.

The surprising thing about the movie itself was its humor, which was also supported by the music, often by contrast. Some of the scenes got a laugh unintentionally, because of the overacting necessary in silent films, but Fairbanks also had a gift for both slapstick and a kind of Oscar Wilde-ish foppishness as Zorro’s effeminate alter-ego.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, and it was good to see so many younger enthusiasts in the audience.

Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at

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