Posts Tagged ‘Clemens Center’

Lon Chaney- Phantom of the Opera 1925We went to see the classic silent film , The Phantom of the Opera, on Sunday at the Clemens Center, a beautifully renovated  theater in my hometown of Elmira.  The film featured accompaniment from organist David Peckham playing the theater’s newly restored Marr and Colton pipe organ.  It was pretty special when the Peckham and the organ rose from the orchestra pit before the film began , Peckham playing  the familiar theme from the theatrical play of the same name.

The organ’s grand sound really added  a wonderful dimension to the film, bringing life to the sometimes exaggerated  pantomime of the actors.  If you’ve seen many silent films, you’re familiar with this style of acting though I believe this film is a little over the top  with its frantic gestures and grasping of the neck in fear.  As you can probably detect, this is not one of my favorite films from the great Lon Chaney who starred as the Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House, although he delivers a strong and compelling performance here.  I found myself identifying more with his character than the wooden stiffs who played the so-called good guys in the film.  So much so that at the end when the mob captures the Phantom,  beating  and throwing him into the Seine as the audience cheered their approval, I felt a real twinge of sympathy for his character.

Lon Chaney made some of the most interesting and powerful films of the silent era before dying at the relatively young age of 47, after a throat hemorrhage  from an infection caused by inhaling painted corn flakes that served as snow on one of his last films.  His ability to transform himself is legendary and made him one of the first mega-stars of film.  I have a hard time watching some of what I consider his best films as they are often grim and filled with base emotion, a quality that is pretty common for the best silent films of the era.

A few years back I wrote here about a couple of his dark movies that featured Chaney as tragic clowns.  Here is what I wrote at the time:

Lon ChaneyI don’t know what made me think of this movie so early this morning.  Something made me think of clowns and how even though their aim is to be comedic and entertaining, they often come across as scary or tragic.

I saw a couple of Lon Chaney silent films a few years back that really reinforce this image.  He Who Gets Slapped and Laugh, Clown, Laugh are anything but laughfests.  Both are grim in nature and filled with tragic circumstances, like many of the films in the post-WW I early 1920’s.

Lon Chaney was a huge star of early films and is pretty much unfamiliar to modern movie fans.  He was known for his ability to transform himself into a wide variety of characters, often contorting his body and altering his face for grotesque effect.  This transformative ability won him the nickname The Man of a Thousand Faces which was also the title of a great film biography of him starring Jimmy Cagney as Chaney.  I recommend this film for those who wishing to learn a little more about an incredible talent.

lon-chaney-laugh-clown-laughChaney is probably best remembered for his classic roles as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but for me it’s these roles as clowns that define Chaney for me.  They are dark films filled with grim  melodrama and tragedy.  They’re sometimes hard to watch.  But they are filled with real human emotion and complexity, so dark that it’s hard to believe that these were popular successes of the time.  Hollywood had yet to perfect the happy ending.

Again, I’m not sure why these came to mind today.

Maybe I’ll be painting clowns today.  Brightly painted sad faces.  Like Red Skelton.  That’s probably another too obscure reference.

Anyway, if you get a chance, and don’t really want to have your spirits lifted, check out these classics from the great Lon Chaney or his film biography, The Man of a Thousand Faces.

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In the town that I call home there is the local theatre and center for the performing arts, the Clemens Center, that underwent a remarkable renovation a few years back and emerged as a spectacular and beautiful showcase.  It has real presence as you sit and take in the restored mural above the stage or admire the intricate carvings that form a frame  around stage opening.

Just a beautiful facility.  A gem.

Unfortunately, it is not always as well attended as one might hope, especially for events that are quite remarkable.   Seeing so few people come out makes me wonder if we deserve such a beautiful theatre or if our area will soon lose the ability to attract world-class musicians.

Last night, there was a performance by world-renowned and Grammy nominated violinist Robert McDuffie accompanied by the Venice Baroque Orchestra.  They were performing The Seasons Project which featured, in the first half of the show, Vivaldi’s  Four Seasons and, in the second half, modern composer Phillip Glass’ composition The American Four Seasons.  This new piece was written specifically for McDuffie and is inspirationally derived from Vivaldi’s seminal work. 

Let me point out that I know little of classical music and cannot speak with any degree of specificity about any piece of music.  I can only tell you what I like.  Like art, all you need to know is your reaction to it.

The Vivaldi was wonderful.  The sound of McDuffie and the 18 musicians of the Venice Baroque Orchestra played the well known work with passion and grace.  There is something quite amazing in the power of an acoustic orchestra and I found myself wondering what it must feel like to be one of those violinists when they are fully immersed in such a piece, with the sound of the other instruments all around them in unison.  Or how this piece  must have stunned audiences in 1725. Truly powerful.

I really didn’t know what to expect for the second half.  I had heard Glass’s work before and had found it always interesting, though not always pleasing to my ear.  I can’t fully describe the piece but I will say that as it grew I began to realize I was witnessing something quite remarkable, both in the compostion and in McDuffie’s performance.  His emotional rendering propelled the piece forward and as it climaxed all the pieces of the composition seemed to suddenly come together as a whole, giving the whole thing an impact that I hadn’t seen coming.  I know that is  hardly descriptive in musical terms but I can do no better.

It was breathtaking to see an original piece played with such passion. 

And for a theatre that was perhaps filled to one third its capacity. 

The elation of the show was tempered for me by the size of the crowd and thr realization that soon such shows would no longer be brought to our area for lack of an audience.  As I looked over the audience last night, I saw a tremendous amount of gray and white  hair.  I was among the younger set there and I am no longer young.  We, as an area, do not have a large number of young professionals that might take in such a show in larger metropolitan areas.  Over the years, we have lost many of our brightest and best to larger cities due the limited prospects caused by the financial hardship that seems to have a permanent home in this area.  The recession that swept the country over the last few years has been in these parts for about thirty years.

I guess that’s just the way things go.  For now, I am pleased to have witnessed something special and will put aside the fact that it may not be a possibility here soon.  If McDuffie is coming to a city near you with this tour, take advantage of the opportunity.

Here’s a small taste of the music…

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