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Reel Time

By David Greenberger

The Millennial Territory Orchestra, accompanying films of Laurel and Hardy

MASS MoCA, Aug. 18


Continuing in the their series of silent films with new scores performed live, Mass MoCA presented an evening of three Laurel and Hardy shorts, selected and scored by Steven Bernstein for his Millennial Territory Orchestra.

Bernstein has been a prolific mainstay of the New York City scene, founding the bands Spanish Fly and Sex Mob, and working on assorted Hal Willner projects, as well as creating music for films, dance and television. The nine-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra is flush with top-shelf players, many of whom are leaders in their own right and all of whom have resumes that would clog a Web portal.

The evening opened sans film, with a piece that Bernstein introduced as an overture of sorts, clarifying that it wasn’t technically an overture—but spiritually it was. You’ve got to respect fine artists who aren’t afraid to color outside the lines. The rousing piece got the night off to a galloping start, showcasing trombonist Art Baron (who, in 1973, at the age of 23, became the last trombonist hired by Duke Ellington in his final year as bandleader).

The three Laurel and Hardy shorts were shown in chronological order; all were from 1927 to 1929. It was remarkable to see just how hugely popular they became in that brief time. In 1927’s Sugar Daddies, their familiar personas were not as clearly delineated. A riotously funny 20 minutes, the pair are almost bursting out of the pratfalls and physical comedy. Two years later, in Wrong Again, their stature was such that things could slow down. Oliver Hardy’s entrance in the first minute is a prolonged close-up on his face, making a series of looks that vacillated between coy and sly, hilarious every moment.

Bernstein’s compositions and arrangements underscore an essential truth about Laurel and Hardy: This is timeless material, as alive now as it was 80 years ago. In fact, it’s brought all the more into the present by drawing from the whole of the past century’s musical possibilities. Groove-based vamps rubbed shoulders with parlor-specific melodic passages. Bernstein also deftly inserted specific musical events to coincide with screen shenanigans, such as baritone saxophonist Erik Lawrence’s accompanying a hyperactive dog in one scene.

Under the worthy banner of Laurel and Hardy, the night was a celebration of the endurance of art and the power of community, as the band interacted with the screen, and the generationally diverse audience responded to what was seen and heard, further fueled by the laughter encircling the room.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

Big Band Boom

Either/Orchestra performed in Troy’s Prospect Park on Tuesday evening. The 10-piece group, called “one of the jazz world’s most gifted and adventurous big bands” by the Washington Post, consists of two trumpets, three saxes, trombone, piano, bass, congas and drums. Tuesday’s free concert was part of Prospect Park’s centennial celebration.


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