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Mount Holyoke College News and Events Vista The College Street Journal Archives

October 22, 2004

MHC Orchestra to Perform Score for The Phantom of the Opera

Photo by: Todd M. LeMieux

Silent films were never truly silent. From the beginning, filmmakers recognized the added dimension that music would bring to the cinema experience and suggested orchestral pieces suitable to accompany swordfights, chases, romantic moments, and other scenes.

With the advent of “talkies,” movie-house orchestra pits disappeared overnight. Today, when silent films are shown, they are frequently accompanied by recorded music or, in some cases, a live trio or quartet. Very seldom is a silent film shown with full orchestral accompaniment.

All of which means that filmgoers can look forward to a rare treat this month. On Saturday, October 30, at 7:30 pm, just in time for Halloween, The Phantom of the Opera, the 1927 classic starring Lon Chaney, will be shown with a score performed by the Mount Holyoke College Orchestra. The group, under the direction of Mark Bartley, visiting instructor in music, will perform a 1990 score by Gabriel Thibaudeau, a Canadian composer who has acquired an international reputation for providing background music for silent film.

Guest artist Mara Bonde ’91, soprano, will perform the singing part of Christine Daaé, the Paris opera singer who is the object of the Phantom’s desires. Bonde, who is critically acclaimed for an electric stage presence and sweet purity of tone, has performed in venues throughout the U.S. and Europe.

The single performance in Chapin Auditorium will represent a significant achievement for the relatively young orchestra, which was founded in the spring of 2000.

Bartley had been pondering the live cinema performance idea for two years and decided that the orchestra would be seasoned enough to tackle the undertaking this fall. Through-out the summer, he submerged himself in a crash course in silent film, trying to find one that would best meet the orchestra’s needs. When he saw Phantom, he knew he had found the right film. When to show the film? It had to be the Saturday before Halloween, of course.

“This has all the challenges of an opera or a musical, without the luxury of having live actors,” said Bartley, who has led the orchestra since 2001. The film runs exactly 93 minutes, and, unlike live theatre, it can neither speed up nor slow down to accommodate the orchestra. “The tempos have to be exact,” he said.

Unlike other orchestral works, which offer pauses between movements for the musicians to take a breath and prepare themselves for whatever comes next, the score offers not a single moment of silence in its 93 minutes, noted Jaime Tung ’06, concertmaster and first violinist, from Edgewood, Washington.

“We’re constantly concentrating and listening, and it’s exhausting,” said Tung, who is majoring in English and minoring in critical social thought. “When the tempo changes and the mood changes, you’ve got to be ready. There’s going to be no [time for] mopping of the brow for Mark.”

Like Bartley, Tung is impressed with the beauty of Thibaudeau’s score. “The music, as a whole, is extremely well composed. It’s a gorgeous symphony,” she said. As befits one of the all-time “creepy” films, she said, “there’s so much dissonance in the piece,” unsettling chords that by themselves can raise the hairs on the back of the neck, movie or no movie. “I listened to it alone in my room, late at night, and I was terrified,” Tung confessed.

An acid test for the film came when Bartley first screened it for the orchestra. In the climactic scene, when Christine approaches the Phantom from behind and removes his mask, revealing Chaney’s disfigured face, “there was quite a reaction from the group,” said Bartley. I was pleased to see that the moment still packs its punch.”

On October 30, the music will pack a punch, too. As Tung noted, “it gives a whole new meaning to ‘surround sound.’ ”


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