Berklee Silent Film Orchestra Has a 'Secret Weapon'

Rob Hayes
April 22, 2016
Stephanie Clark

Graduating from the Boston Conservatory next month with a graduate performance diploma, Stephanie Clark has played the clarinet and bass clarinet in the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra for the last three years. One of the most expressive of all the instruments in a film orchestra, clarinet is called upon to replicate a great range of human emotions, which in a silent film, without dialogue or sound design, are interpreted and amplified by the musical score alone.

Sheldon Mirowitz, Berklee professor of film scoring, says Stephanie is the orchestra’s "secret weapon." “The film scores are demanding to sight-read and play,” says Mirowitz. “You’re working with composer/conductors who have the staff paper on their stand, a stream of the movie on a laptop, and the orchestra, and they have to keep all of it in synch with the image on the big screen. Making the music truly affect the audience requires precision, flexibility and heart that not every player can deliver. But Steph does.”

Now in its sixth year, the BSFO is a film scoring course, in which some of Berklee’s finest film composers collectively write, with Mirowitz, a new original score to a classic silent film, and then conduct the 12-piece orchestra, performing live to picture. The composer/conductors—who pass the baton as they move from reel to reel—and their musicians, work much like trapeze artists, without a net. This is a particularly apt description, because the BSFO’s newest film, Varieté (1926), features trapeze artists, a love triangle, and a murder. The BSFO will premiere its score at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline on May 2.

Clark began working with the BSFO in 2013; her first film with the group was Faust. “Another Conservatory person was supposed to do it—Sheldon asked me to sub on a rehearsal, I subbed again, and before I knew it, I was a lifer! I hadn’t worked with Berklee film scoring students before, and I was so surprised at the sheer amount of work involved, and how much they cared to get it just right.” 

Over the last few years with the BSFO, Clark has played several major venues, including the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. “The San Francisco trip was a complete hoot. We bunked in an old Army barracks right on the Bay, 18 of us in one room! After all of the rehearsals, the performance trips to Nantucket and the Vineyard, you really do get to know each other.”

“Sometimes on projects you see people come in and play their notes and go home, but with the BSFO everyone is busting it to make something wonderful, to make a score that could stand the test of time. You can feel the audience responding to that dedication. As I complete my degree, and I move into the next phase of my career, I know this is one of the experiences I will cherish the most, and I’ll hope to do more films!”