It was an evening for those who love the arts.
Plattsburgh’s Strand Center Theatre offered guests a unique experience Saturday with the presentation of Lon Chaney’s 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” with the live accompaniment of an organist.
In an event honoring contributors to the restoration of the 1924 Wurlitzer Opus 970 organ two days before the five-year anniversary of that restoration, organist Jonathan Ortloff treated an audience of 267 to his own score for Chaney’s classic film.
The 107-minute performance was played on the Wurlitzer a team of volunteers led by Ortloff himself had so meticulously restored.
I do not seek to offer critique of a 93-year-old film listed on the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural significance, so my focus is on the performance as a complement to the film.
As an audience member, I was impressed by the interplay between the two in creating an enjoyable and unique experience. This was my first time seeing the movie, or any silent film for that matter, but I still felt the music enhanced my enjoyment.
From the opening credits, Ortloff set the tone for the horror film, with a sustained reverberation of low tones beneath a slow minor-key melody creating an ominous mood.
That quickly gave way to the opening shots of the film in the lobby of the Paris Opera House, when Ortloff’s rendition of “La Marseillaise” left no doubt about the setting.
Next came one of the performance scenes at the opera house. Ortloff had noted before the show that the music in these scenes was not his, instead borrowed from the opera being performed.
This scene was notable in being one of my few complaints about interaction between Ortloff’s performance and the film. The music did not seem, at times, to line up with the movements of the dancers on stage. This was likely a relic of the film’s production, when movements didn’t need to match any source music because it was to be silent.
The first few scenes established Ortloff’s intent for his score: to have the music reflect the mood and action of the scene and thereby enhance the experience of the viewer. That was an endeavour in which I felt Ortloff succeeded.
Scenes with Christine Daaé and Raoul de Chagny were supported with romantic tunes that created a happy mood; scenes in which the Phantom appeared or was discussed were often accompanied by more somber melodies.
Sustaining the final note in a happier tune and building a minor chord on top of it seemed to create a sense of mystery as the Phantom first spoke to Christine in the film. The same technique was used again to great effect when the Phantom was shown hovering over Christine and Raoul on the roof of the Paris Opera House
Ortloff made frequent and effective use of simultaneously sustained low and high notes sandwiching these somber tunes to generate an uncomfortable, even eerie, feeling.
The only scene in which I felt the music did not reflect the action was when Christine fainted upon realizing she was with the Phantom; a slow and steady melody continued, even as the Phantom frantically ran to Christine’s side.
Beyond the mood of the music matching that of the scene, Ortloff’s score had some moments of even greater interplay with the events of the film.
A cacophony of notes reflected the chaos of the opera-house crowd fleeing as the chandelier fell, with the sudden burst of a chord the instant of impact making even the live audience flinch.
Later, a brief crescendo of music matched the image briefly going out of focus before returning to a hypnotized-looking Christine on her first face-to-face encounter with the Phantom.
One of the most impressive moments, but also one of the most off-putting, was the Bal Masqué scene. A jovial tune with an almost carnival-like bounce to it perfectly matched the revelry of the party, but it also made the viewer’s adjustment to the film’s only technicolor scene a bit more disorienting. At least, that was my experience.
Ortloff’s performance was most stunning at the film’s climax.
The quick pace of the music accentuated the urgency as Raoul and Inspector Ledoux were trapped in a room with gunpowder, and the melody of La Marseillaise was heard again when the angry Parisian mob approached to confront the Phantom.
The music reached an absolutely frantic pace when that mob was seen chasing the Phantom through the streets, before a heavy crescendo led into a powerful final chord at the dramatic conclusion of the piece as the mob killed the Phantom and threw his body into the river.
There is no doubt that Ortloff’s score was the product of a laborious effort to make the perfect accompaniment to Lon Chaney’s classic film. While I could split hairs over some of the minor imperfections, those flaws are far from sufficient to change my opinion of the performance.
As one who holds a deep appreciation for the arts and recognizes the passion and effort Ortloff put into this performance, it is not enough to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this unique experience. I loved it.