After playing with a vampire one year and a disfigured phantom the next, Robert Nicholls will accompany a deaf, deformed bell ringer in the First Presbyterian Church's organ loft on Friday. Nicholls, the church's music director and a champion improvisational artist, will extemporize his own organ accompaniment for a 7 p.m. digital screening of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," the 1923 silent movie starring Lon Chaney.
This is the third year Nicholls has provided pipe organ accompaniment for a classic fright film. Two Octobers ago he played along with "Nosferatu," F. W. Murnau's silent, 1922 vampire movie.
And in 2012, the same year he won top prize in the American Guild of Organists' biannual pipe organ improvisation competition, Nicholls came up with his own accompaniment for a screening of "The Phantom of the Opera," a 1925 film that also featured Chaney in the title role.
Friday Nicholls will once again unleash the power of the church's 1,919-pipe C. B. Fisk pipe organ to punctuate and underscore the melodramatic action and emotion of this early film adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic tale of a deaf, bent, bell ringer who offers his tower as sanctuary to a Gypsy dancer in medieval Paris.
This movie offers Nicholls fresh challenges, with more characters and some rapid scene changes. "A lot of the first part of the movie is given over to finding out who these characters are," he said.
"I try to have a unique melody or harmony assigned each of them, and perhaps even a certain sound on the organ, like a series of leitmotifs, so that when they enter a scene, there's a sense they're around."
Jehan Frollo, a villainous character, "has a very angular, quite an aggressive theme, which sort of slithers about using diminished harmony," Nicholls said.
To represent Esmerelda, who has "more of a gypsy influence, I might sort of hint at one of (Johannes) Brahms' Hungarian dances as her theme, but it goes through a number of transformations as she changes during the movie."
And for the hunchback, Quasimodo, Nicholls will play a "sighing, yearning theme," he said. "He's the most unfulfilled character of all. I think everyone else gets what's coming to them."
It's like scoring a movie, except that a film composer "gets to write everything down over months or a year," Nicholls said. "I have to sit down and do in the moment."
And at two hours, this movie is longer than either of the previous features he's presented, Nicholls noted. For him, the pressure on the music will be "more intensive, sort of keeping our music interest in reflecting what's going on the screen. It's a wonderful challenge. I'm really enjoying it."
Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. for the event, which, judging from last year's attendance, may fill the sanctuary quickly.
Admission is free, but Nicholls asks for a $5 donation to support chorister scholarships for the Royal School of Church Music in America summer workshops.
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