Review: RSO’s The General

One question I had going into this show was how the audience would react. On the one hand, it’s a Regina Symphony Orchestra show. There’s a certain decorum implied in that. On the other, it’s a Shumiatcher Pops series presentation, where the symphony can loosen up a bit.

Not only that, but it was a show featuring a classic of the comedy genre, 1927’s The General, to which the RSO would be performing the score. Really, my main question was, “Would people be laughing?”

The answer is, “Yes.” People were getting into the film so much that they even applauded a gag in the film. When an audience at a live event applauds the non-live part of the performance, you know they’re getting into it.

They weren’t the only ones. Conductor Victor Sawa clearly had a lot of enthusiasm for what he’d put together along with the help of guest pianist Richard Friend. Before the program started, he enthused about the Buster Keaton silent classic. (During that preamble, Sawa also invoked the controversial movie Birth of a Nation to explain how many extras were used in The General, an odd choice when talking about a film where you already have to cheer for the South in the Civil War.)

There was a lot to be enthusiastic about for Sawa. For one, the movie holds up. The pacing is excellent and most if not all of the jokes stand up today. Those that might feel dated are expertly sold by Keaton, the Great Stone Face.

Keaton plays an engineer whose train, the General of the title, is captured by Union soldiers, who also make off with his true love as well. Ever the valiant comedy star, Keaton’s character must pratfall his way behind enemy lines, reclaim his love and engine, and make it back home in time to warn the Confederates of an oncoming attack.

The RSO divided the performance into two, taking an intermission as soon as Keaton begins his journey back. For the first half, the orchestra performed a beautiful score ably. Friend took a lot of the spotlight, as his playing was the thread of the performance. Whenever the orchestra wasn’t playing, he was, and quite well at that. The transitions between the two was seamless.

In the second half, the orchestra got the chance to really open up. With all the cannon fire and train crashes, there’s a lot of excitement and action in the second half of The General. The orchestra matched that, playing nimbly and with great verve.

All in all, it was an exciting and really fun presentation. Kudos to the RSO.

Author: James Brotheridge

Contributing Editor with Prairie Dog.