Review: Organist Todd Wilson and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at Severance Hall

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By Timothy Robson

In the early decades of the 20th century there were as many as 7,000 organs installed in movie theaters in the United States for the purposes of entertaining audiences before and between shows and, especially, for accompanying silent films. The theaters have, alas, mostly vanished, the organs either destroyed or re-installed elsewhere, and the skills for accompanying silent films have been lost. That is why organist Todd Wilson’s performance on Friday night at Severance Hall accompanying the 1923 American film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Lon Chaney was such a brilliant feat of musical invention, theatricality and stamina.

The film, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same title, is the tale of the deaf, half-blind and disfigured Quasimodo (Chaney) who lives in the vast spaces of Notre Dame Cathedral in 1482 Paris. The gypsy girl Esmeralda takes pity on Quasimodo after he has been beaten by a ruthless government official. The Captain of the Guard, Phoebus, is also smitten with Esmeralda, as are several less savory characters. The complicated plot is full of romance, betrayal, comedy and tragedy — everything a good movie should have. Although the acting style is now out of fashion, the movie’s subjects are as relevant in 2015 as they were in 1923.

Early theater organists would have assembled an accompaniment from a variety of sources including “canned” score sheets, often using popular themes of the day to represent the action and emotions of the emotions portrayed. Improvisation was an usually an essential element in the performance. Todd Wilson, Director of Music at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland and a renowned concert organist, has in recent years resurrected the techniques of film accompaniment.

Prior to his performance on Friday night Wilson spoke briefly about the idea of having a set of predetermined themes from which to base his improvisations. He likened them to ingredients on the shelf that the cook can use as needed. Read the review at
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