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Pulling Out All The Stops

October 11, 2017 12:00 pm0 commentsViews: 5
Still from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1925)

Still from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1925)

by Steve Desroches

On a crisp autumn night deep into October, a large audience huddles inside, cozy and protected from the wind that is swirling dead leaves up to the door of the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in the middle of Provincetown. The lights dim as a portable movie screen at the front of the sanctuary illuminates with the 1925 silent horror film The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin. The movie is an icon of cinema and even as it nears its centennial, the imagery is instantly recognizable to a modern audience.  But what is new this particular night for this audience is to watch the film as it was originally intended, accompanied by organ music.

Peter Krasinski, a widely known and well-respected organist and music educator, came to the UU Meeting House last October to present what has become another career for him all together, touring with silent films as an accompanist. And on that night the crowd assembled without really knowing what to expect. After all, silent films largely went the way of the dodo once “talkies” came around. But just like today’s technological advancements illustrate, when the new replaces the old we make progress, but lose something along the way. So when the chandelier falls upon the crowd at the Paris Opera in the film and the real ornate lighting in the UU flickers for comedic effect or when the Phantom’s face is revealed and Krasinski pulls out all the stops on the historic Holbrook tracker organ to release a thunderous sound of terror, the audience goes wild with appreciation. They had arrived with an open mind ready for something old to be new again, and were delighted beyond their wildest expectations.

“What makes it unique is that each time I’m improvising,” says Krasinski. “The audience, the venue, and the organ really inform what the music will be like.”

Organist Peter Krasinski

Organist Peter Krasinski

The evening was so successful, both as a community event and as a fundraiser for the historic UU Meeting House, that Krasinski is returning on Saturday, October 14 to play during a screening of the 1921 comedy silent short The Haunted House starring Buster Keaton and the full-length silent feature 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda.  Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House is a Greek Revival building built in 1847, making it a gorgeous place to watch a show, or in this case a film and concert in one. The organ was built in 1850 by Edwin Holbrook and restored, and added upon, by Stephen J. Russell & Co. in 2001. When Krasinski heard that the organ had had parts added to it, it first concerned him, but upon seeing and playing the magnificent instrument he was thrilled as he says the restoration and the renovation was marvelously done.

Organs are often built to be site specific, making them both distinctive and irreplaceable. New England is full of organs, with Boston being a recognized capitol for the instrument, says Krasinski, who tours the country to bring attention to historic organs. He became interested in them as a child because he loved the one that was at Bethany Congregational Church in his hometown of Quincy, Massachusetts, and the Wurlitzer that is in the town hall in Stoneham, Massachusetts, which had silent film screenings. At the time he played the violin and sang, but later he moved to the organ and received two degrees in music from Boston University, including a master’s in sacred music from the School of Theology. His goal of bringing attention to organ music is working as he recently played at a sold-out screening of the classic 1927 film Metropolis at the Strand Center for the Arts in Plattsburgh, New York, for an audience of 800, most of whom were under the age of 30, earning new fans.

“What my intention is is two-fold,” says Krasinski.  “I’m the narrator of the film and then eventually you don’t even know I’m there.”

At the time of their release the films would have either had a simple score with just the melody and the organist adding the harmonies, a complete score for an orchestra, or nothing at all, leaving it up to the house musician. If there ever was any sheet music, it needed to be returned with the print of the film, so very little survives today. But Krasinski reiterates that it’s very much an art form of improvisation tied to the reaction of the audience, as the music and the people become simpatico, propelling the story being told in the film and making the experience one of emotional immersion.

While he’s busy playing concerts and screenings throughout the year, October is his busiest time. There’s something about the sound that seems perfect for Halloween. Maybe it’s the connection with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and classic horror films, but whatever the reason, each October has Krasinski crisscrossing the country playing historic organs to silent horror movies, including playing Halloween night at a screening of the silent vampire film Nosferatu at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, Tennessee. But first he’s excited to come back to Provincetown for a little happy haunting.

“Halloween time is always very, very busy,” says Krasinski. “I’m glad. Some people come in costume. I’m glad it’s catching on as a Halloween event. It makes for really good fun.”

The screening of the silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Haunted House with Peter Krasinski accompanying on the Holbrook tracker organ is on Saturday, October 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, 236 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($10) are available at the door. For more information call 508.487.9344 or visit uumh.org.