This year Halloween took place during a four-day salute to Alfred Hitchcock featuring live performances of the scores for his films performed by the San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony. However, it has become a long-standing tradition that Halloween be celebrated in Davies with a silent horror movie and live (usually improvised) accompaniment on the Davies Ruffatti Concert Organ. It thus seemed appropriate to depart from the usual spooky imagery in favor Hitchcock’s talent for eliciting blood-curdling suspense. Therefore, this year’s silent film was his 1927 The Lodger with music provided by Todd Wilson, whose many credentials include Curator of the E. M. Skinner pipe organ in Severance Hall, the home of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra,
As usual, the film’s screening was preceded by a “Prelude.” This year it was only one composition; and it was explicitly cited in the program book, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 565 toccata and fugue in D minor. Bach never intended this to be “scary music;” but Hollywood decided otherwise. It is now as closely associated with the horror genre as Rossini’s overture to William Tell is with one of the most familiar cowboy characters. Wilson therefore gave the music an unabashed (and, for the most part, delightfully entertaining) “Hollywood treatment,” even if this meant that some of the more intricate counterpoint got swept up into an overwhelming wave of sound.
My guess is that Wilson can perform “historically-informed” Bach as well as any other capable organist. However, he clearly also has a deep understanding of how to work with those instruments that have been designed and built with a truly massive scale in mind. As a result, his approach to Bach filled every corner of Davies with the full impact of the Ruffatti sound, a thoroughly exhilarating outburst that would then contrast sharply with Hitchcock’s account of a hunt for a serial killer that succeeds in being both emotionally intense and rhetorically subdued at the same time.
In improvising his accompaniment to this film, Wilson responded to Hitchcock’s low-key approach with his own preference for quieter dynamics. He kept the audience both attentive and entertained by slipping in a variety of fragments of and riffs on familiar tunes, occasionally with comic effect. The most obvious involved giving the detective character, Joe Chandler, the leitmotiv of Henry Mancini’s theme music for the movie The Pink Panther. However, he also showed highly judicious use of stops to parallel the moodiness of Hitchcock’s imagery.
The fun, however, came when Wilson reinforced the film’s happy ending with an improvisation featuring the “Fanfare” ranks of pipes, all fully exposed including the “battle” trumpet pipes that extend forward on the perpendicular. These make for quite a stirring sound, which is so unique that this may have been my first experience of actually listening to them. They were entirely appropriate for a “Hollywood ending” conclusion to the film (even if Hitchcock made it in the United Kingdom).