News Column

UNCC students bring live music to silent 'Phantom'

October 28, 2013


Oct. 28--Haunting trills of the organ echo throughout St. John's Episcopal Church as if the Phantom lurks in the pews.

But it's not the Phantom of the opera or the church. Instead, it's 19-year-old Austin Philemon, in the balcony practicing at the massive instrument.

He's one of four UNC Charlotte students bringing life to the silent 1925 film "The Phantom of the Opera," to which they'll perform arranged and improvised music on Halloween night.

Philemon, of Monroe, is UNCC's only organ major and has organized the event to raise money for the Levine Children's Hospital.

In the balcony of St. John's, Philemon is playing the organ while Idunn Lohne, also a freshman, plays violin. Kyle Melton and Kate Eckard will sing, respectively, the parts of the tragic villain the Phantom, and Christine, the story's heroine. Tyler Goehring will serve as organ crew, assisting Philemon by adjusting organ stops at choreographed moments.

An 8-foot-by-14-foot screen will be at the front of the altar, and Philemon will watch the movie in reflections from mirrors as he faces the organ.

Philemon said a piano teacher of his once performed music to the silent film, and he came up with the idea in September to do it as a fundraiser.

He's a home-school graduate and Levine Scholar. UNCC is holding a dance marathon to raise money for the children's hospital, so the fundraising idea seemed like a perfect fit, he said.

"He is creative, he is inquisitive and just a very, very warm individual with a great heart," said his organ professor, Jacqueline Yost.

A mix of live music

Broadway fans, beware: You won't hear traditional favorites like "Angel of Music" or "Music of the Night." Philemon said he's trying to stay as far away as possible from the well-known tunes, to deliver something original.

He and the other three will perform a mix of French, Romantic-period pieces and avant-garde, 20th-century contemporary music. They're borrowing from composers including Bach, Elgar, Gounod, Debussy and Rachmaninoff.

And while Philemon has a large stack of sheet music for the hour-and-half movie, he'll be improvising a lot to mesh the different pieces so that music is continuous. Lohne will also have an improvised violin piece during the film.

He and his friends are excited about bringing back a popular 1920s form of entertainment in performing the accompaniment.

Silent movies were once a national pastime, but they were generally never truly silent: Theaters would feature an organ or piano player, or even orchestras, performing musical accompaniments. Silent films faded from theaters after "talkies," or movies with sound and dialogue, emerged in the late 1920s and the 1930s.

Philemon said he wants to continue performing to silent films and wants to do a comedy next. He's thinking about Buster Keaton's "College" from 1927.

"It's really a lost art," said Melton, the male vocalist. He's a voice major at UNCC. "I think it's going to go smashingly well."

Lost art, forgotten instrument

After watching and rewatching scenes, Philemon said he's knocked at random hours on Lohne's door, down the hall, when he's come up with new inspiration.

Lohne, a violin player from Oslo, Norway, said she doesn't mind and has enjoyed the project. She said was all for the idea when Philemon proposed it: "I thought it sounded really fun."

They said collectively, they've probably watched the movie 30 times.

While Melton said he's excited about reviving a mostly dead art, Philemon said he also wants to bring the organ back to popularity.

He first began playing after he heard the Broadway version of "Phantom" at 12.

"That was the coolest thing I'd ever heard in my entire life," he said. "I think it's the most cool, most versatile instrument in the entire world."

Philemon said a lot of people assume organ music is strictly funereal, but it can produce music that's joyful, terrifying or even peaceful.

"It's like an orchestra under your fingers," he said.

There are enough organ components to sound like an orchestra. Playing the organ involves three hand keyboards, a few dozen knobs that change the pipes' pitches, a pedal keyboard, a few more foot pedals and also buttons that control multiple knobs at a time.

"It's not as easy as it looks -- there's a lot, a lot, of practice that goes into it," Yost said.

A 'healthy' Halloween alternative

The Rev. Paul Winton, rector of St. John's, said Christian tradition has always supported the arts, and he was happy his church could host the project.

The storyline, too, he said, can teach people the importance of caring for others and not judging by appearance.

"Given some alternatives to how Halloween is spent, it seems like a healthy alternative," he said. "I think it's cool. We're thrilled to have them."


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