Church presents Valentino as you've never heard him

Organist puts music to silent film classic

November 13, 2006|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Rudolph Valentino was riding across an Arabian sand dune as silent movie organist James Harp concluded a frantic version of the William Tell Overture.

The pews at the St. Mark Lutheran Church, built in 1898, vibrated from the dizzying peal of what sounded like 1,000 throbbing pipes. The audience erupted into spontaneous applause as the brass cascade bounced off the stained-glass windows and bejeweled Louis C. Tiffany Studios interior.

"You have to use that trumpet sparingly," Harp said in a musical understatement at the conclusion of his bravura performance yesterday afternoon. Any more use of the organ's trumpets might have brought temporary deafness.

For a little more than an hour within the darkened church nave, Harp summoned all the grand passions - lust, rage, revenge, joy, seduction and love - as he accompanied the 1926 film, The Son of the Sheik, starring Valentino in what proved to be his last movie. The great romantic icon of the 1920s died that year.

Baltimore audiences saw the film in the opening weeks of November 1926 at the old Century Theatre on Lexington Street. It too was accompanied by an organ.

Harp, a Jacksonville, Fla.-born graduate of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, is the St. Paul Street church's cantor, playing the organ and directing its choir. He is also the Baltimore Opera Company's chorus master.

"He has the gift to pair the music to the action perfectly," said Barry Richmond, a retired administrative judge who has helped underwrite the church's Sunday afternoon musical events. Harp is planning another silent film musical program next year on Palm Sunday. It'll be a biblical epic, perhaps Ben Hur or The Sign of the Cross.

This was a busy weekend for Harp. He left the Lyric Opera House in the early morning hours yesterday after his chorus had finished its vocal work in Verdi's Nabucco. By Sunday morning, he was up and out of his Bolton Hill home and playing "O God Our Help in Ages Past" for his regular church job at St. Mark's.

Then, at 2 p.m., he was back at the organ bench for 75 minutes of uninterrupted playing to accompany the silent film for a crowd of about 100. "The actors in the silent films accomplished everything with gestures and with their eyes," Harp said a few minutes before the United Artists film rolled. "They may not have had the soundtracks and the special effects, but what they accomplished was just as powerful as what you see today."

He loves the long close-ups and the camera's obsession with emotion as expressed in the eyes.

Those who missed Harp's performance have another chance this week to hear live music while watching silent films. The University of Maryland School of Law will show silent movies - including Laurel and Hardy's Two Tars - accompanied by organist Michael Britt beginning at noon Thursday at Westminster Hall, Fayette and Greene streets. Admission to the event is free, part of the school's Lunch Under the Pipes series.

Harp became interested in silent films about 10 years ago. Because of his background in opera, he was familiar with the music that musicians of the 1910s and 1920s would have employed to accompany films generally made before the coming of the soundtrack.

Movie houses occasionally had orchestras or an organ and organist - or a piano. The organ at St. Mark's, a Mohler installed in 1923, had a sound that was ideally suited to silent films, he said. When it was rebuilt and made its debut early this year, he made sure all the pipes, the flutes, celestes, strings, harp, oboe and diapason remained.

He's combed old bookshops for musical scores appropriate to period film, but mainly relies on his own taste and instinct for what his audience should be hearing.

"The humor he puts into it is just perfect," said Elsa Jane Siegmund, a member of the congregation.

Harp was assisted by Greg Weddig, a theater consultant whose fiancee is a member of the St. Mark's congregation. He used a DVD version of the film, which was projected through a Sanyo optical device that saw many years of service at the Lyric Opera House screening opera libretto surtitles far above the heads of the signers.

The film was shown on a temporary screen in front the church's altar.

Harp said he loved taking the situations and scenes in the silent movies and matching them with the works of the composers he knows. Because of its desert setting, he used a portion of operetta composer Sigmund Romberg's The Desert Song, an operetta written the same year as the Valentino film. He also drew from Bizet's Carmen and Massenet's Thais. For a scimitar brawl scene, he lifted the Suite Gothique by Leon Boellmann.

"For the dramatic rescue, I just had to use the William Tell Overture," Harp said. "There was nothing else but that."

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