Mention silent movies and most people think of the pale, twitching images and wobbly music that accompanies the films on television. Thereal silent movie experience, however, is a different thing entirely. Bay area audiences will be able to see for themselves when the Florida Orchestra and guest conductor/arranger Donald Hunsberger bring the classic Phantom of the Opera to life with a restored print of the film and the same music audiences could have heard when the film was originally released.
"The hardest part is to get people in the door," said conductor Hunsberger, a professor of music at the Eastman School of Music. "Audiences have been shown very poor reproductions on TV, with fast, jerky motions, because the films are being played at a different speed than they were filmed. That's not how the films really are.
"People get a kick out of being in the same room as the orchestra and the movie," he said. "It takes a little while, but people really get into the films."
While there are still pianists and organists alive who accompanied silent films in their heyday, full orchestra accompaniment is a rarity. A few years ago composer and conductor Carmine Coppola took an an orchestra on tour with the restored version of Abel Gance's 1927 marathon silent epic Napoleon. Like that project, Hunsberger's efforts are the result of long research into music of the period and education in the lost art of conducting a live orchestra with a silent film.
Choosing the music to accompany a silent film was a creative process that depended on the taste and skill of the performers at individual theaters. The films were not issued with music but with cue sheets that signaled the accompanying performer about scene content, emotional moods and other hints about appropriate background.
"The cue sheet was usually issued with the film, but most of the films don't meet the cue sheets now," said Hunsberger. "They've been cut or restored or altered so that the cues have to be totally reworked."
Hunsberger has culled his music from a number of sources, including the Eastman Theater. He's restricted himself to music from the period of the movie's release and before.
"The characters and emotions are established very much like Wagner established motives in The Ring (of the Nibelungen)," he said. "There's a motive for love. There's music for a giddy character. There's chase music. And when those people appear later, they have the same music associated with them. But the music could be played slower the second time, or faster. That's a trick (musicians of the time) used."
Coordinating the music and the images is Hunsberger's role, but the orchestra musicians have demands as well.
"There are 48 different music cues in the Phantom," said Hunsberger. "Though some of them are repeated, they don't always come back at the same speed or in the same style. It requires a lot of flexibility from the musicians."
AT A GLANCE
The Phantom of the Opera, 1925 silent film with accompaniment by the Florida Orchestra, Donald Hunsberger conductor and arranger. Performances 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, 8:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, 8 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and 8 p.m. Nov. 4 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Tickets are $14-$24 and available by calling 286-2403 (Hillsborough) or 447-4210 (Pinellas). Tickets for the Van Wezel performance are available by calling 953-3366 (Sarasota).