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Peter Richard Conte may be known locally as the musical wizard who performs on the world-renowned Wanamaker organ in Center City. But his artistry will take a terrifying turn this Saturday night as he improvises some of the most spine-tingling and blood-curdling musical effects you’ve ever heard during the silent film original, The Phantom of the Opera.
Starring the iconic Lon Chaney, the father of cinematic horror, the 1925 Phantom is not only one of the most famous films of all time, but it has retained its petrifying power for nearly a century. In this production, the film will assume a menacing presence on a huge screen that sprawls before the cowering Verizon Hall audience. Conte, an acknowledged master of the secret art of organ improvisation, will unleash a barrage of music stretching from the skin-crawling creepy to the heavenly divine.
“It’s a thrilling feeling,” Conte told me via phone from Youngstown, Ohio, on Sunday, where he was preparing to accompany the silent film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) for a large, terror-craving audience in a few hours. “The floor vibrates beneath your feet!” This is not surprising, since the state-of-the-art organs on which Conte performs link to hundreds of sonorous pipes and contain multiple keyboards including one for soles and heels. In Philly, Conte will play the legendary Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, the largest mechanical action concert hall organ in the United States, sporting nearly 7,000 pipes, four blowers, 300 levels of memory and 111 stops. The production is part of this fall’s Philadelphia Orchestra season, but the orchestra will not participate in the concert. After all, here is an instrument that is a dead ringer for just about every sound produced in the traditional symphonic ensemble.
Conte’s performance will be a real treat for lovers of all forms of improvised music. Improvisation (taking a musical phrase and building it into something grand) is at the heart of many of the world’s oldest musical traditions, including jazz, the music of India, and the Western classical tradition before the modern era. Many listeners will be surprised to learn that the great French cathedral organists (Widor, Franck, Saint-Saens and others) were masters of improvisation and even improvised parts of the Mass. Conte does not recall exactly when or what attracted him to this freeform style of playing, but today he is recognized as a national expert and has taught organ improvisation at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, a leading music college in the Delaware Valley.
Playing to the chord of terror
Conte will not have any printed score in front of him as he shapes and teases melodies and harmonies into the perfect backgrounds for the feverish dramatic action unfolding on the Verizon Hall stage. Instead, he will refer to a cue sheet of scenes, noting the title cards which indicate the actor’s lines as well as visual cues in the film itself.
How important is music to film drama? Conte cites a study involving John Williams’ nail-biting score for Jaws. “Shown without the music, the scene showed a fish and a boat. With the heart-stopping music, however, the scene conveyed unforgettable terror!”
Peter Richard Conte has a busy season ahead following the one-night performance of Phantom. As the holidays approach, we will be able to catch him at the Wanamaker organ in downtown Macy’s, and later with the Philly Pops as the music scene returns to some semblance of normalcy. Together, artists and audiences are emerging from the most severe strictures of the pandemic. If all continues to go well, there will be many concerts on the horizon in early spring.
But for now, Halloween beckons, and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor is on everyone’s Top Ten list. Conte looks forward to enchanting adults and children alike at this holiday special, but insists the show is all about the film, not just his performance. “The greatest compliment I can have,” Conte said, “is for people to forget I’m there. My improvisations and the organ exist to support and advance the drama, not detract from it.”
What, When, Where
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) film with Peter Richard Conte improvising at the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ. Part of the Philadelphia Orchestra fall series. Saturday, October 30, 2021, 8pm. Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall, 300 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. $25 general admission. (215) 893-1999 or philorch.org.
Seating in the hall is assigned on a first-come, first-served basis.
All audience members over 12 years of age must show proof of full vaccination to attend. Audience members younger than 12 years must provide a negative Covid-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of the event. Masks are required at all times. Seating is not socially distanced.
The Kimmel Center is an ADA-compliant venue, and Verizon Hall is fully accessible. Patrons can purchase wheelchair seating or loose chairs online, by calling Patron Services at (215) 893-1999, or by emailing [email protected]. With advance notice, Patron Services can provide options for personal care attendants, American Sign Language, Braille tickets and programs, audio descriptions, and other services.
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