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Andrej Goricar, Silent Film Pianist

by Gary Tischler

There is a certain pattern to an Embassy Series event: you’re seated at one of the many embassies in Washington, or at an ambassador’s residence or at a cultural institute. There will be great music, usually by established masters of the violin, the piano, the voice, performing at a high level the repertoire by the masters like Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach.

Afterwards, there is time for the social and across-cultures part of the evening, meeting with the ambassador, embassy officials and the like amidst food and drink, often representing the cuisine of the particular embassy.

All of this held true at the sleek, modern Embassy of Slovenia—there was music, there was the requisite socializing.

And then again, it was also almost completely different. Here were nearly a hundred people buzzing, talking, offering opinions, they were animated and excited, in a way that went way beyond the usual meet-and-greet atmosphere.

They were talking about an 85-year-old movie—a silent movie at that—which had just been screened to the accompaniment of a musical score composed and played by Slovenian pianist Andrej Goričar. The combination was a unique event, even by Embassy Series standards which has created many memorable events—the Vilna Ghetto concerts, the concerts at the Iraqi Cultural Center, Till Fellner’s memorable Beethoven concerts, the recent concert in honor of the Daniel Pearl Foundation at the Israeli Embassy to name a few—in its long history.

What the audience experienced was an uncommon combination of powerful performance art—new and original music by Goričar, who specializing in playing and composing music for silent films—with a screening of an example of classic American silent cinema. That would be “Sunrise”, praised in its time (1927) as a work of high art that was also a popular success in what is now an all but lost cinematic art form.

“Sunrise”, which starred Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien, was an example of the kind of film that was almost purely cinematic, even operatic, a primal tale of a man and woman, deeply in love, raising a family on a farm, threatened and beguiled by the more urban and sophisticated life that appears to surround them.

The husband—the characters all have generic names—a big, handsome, physically imposing example of Manhood—momentarily succumbs to the allure of a visitor from the city, a recognizable vamp because she has short skirts, short black hair and smokes, and looks like flapper star Clara Bow. So smitten is he that he momentarily thinks of drowning his wife, who is blonde, hair in a bun, true and sweet.

But the moment passes and the couple ends up in the city, which looks like Manhattan on a very good day, Oz on another good day, full of speeding cars, spires, dance halls, a playground of sophistication.

The couple—after seeing a wedding in a large church—re-united, fall in love all over again, enjoy the city and happily return home, but on the journey home, a storm strikes the couple who are in a boat and, well, the rest is true melodrama of the silent type.

The style of acting in silent movies, especially this one, is so overwrought, so BIG that to today’s audiences it seems not like something old fashioned, but something new, it has a powerful appeal because it’s so clean, emotionally honest and direct, that it feels irresistibly real.

Goričar’s music is our cue to this film—it’s at turn dramatic, overpowering, sweet and soft, and occasionally, as in the city scenes, moves with the gentle pull of old ragtime sounds. It’s an original composition that entirely fits the film as well as our hearts.

“Sunrise” (subtitled “A Song of Two Humans”, which ought to tell you that big ambitions are at work here), was directed by F. W. Murnau, one of a group of German émigrés who rose to prominence during the silent era. The group—known for the use of the German expressionist style—included Eric Von Stroheim, known for his infamous “Greed”, Fritz Lang, who would go on to make “Metropolis” and later, noir thrillers, as well as G.W Pabst. They made movies that were undeniably meant to be works of art. They were, if “Sunrise” is any example, emotionally powerful.

In this way—the music, the movie, the talk afterwards—the Embassy of Slovenia became a place where something old—“Sunrise” in silence—became new again.