Walter Mencken 11:31 a.m., Feb. 1
Interview: Russ Peck, Symphony's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Organist
On a recent weekday afternoon, frightening music filled downtown’s Copley Symphony Hall.
Dissonant chords erupted in ear-blasting fortissimos. Chromatic scales plummeted to sinister depths. Low notes throbbed so menacingly that they seemed to reverberate through my spine, making me tingle. And all because organist Russ Peck was practicing for the San Diego Symphony’s Halloween Silent Film Night, slated for Sunday, October 30 at Symphony Hall.
Organist Russ Peck at Copley Symphony Hall.
Peck, 53, will accompany Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1920 classic starring John Barrymore as both the good doctor and his sinister alter ego, a fiend who indulges his darkest urges. “Due to the extreme rarity and fragility of existing prints of this film,” says the note on the symphony’s website, “a high-density DVD projection will be utilized instead of our normal carbon arc projector practice.”
Even though the movie will be shown on DVD, watching it will be unlike anything anyone could experience at home. After all, Symphony Hall was once the Fox Theatre, an ornate movie palace. And Peck will play the hall’s 1923 Robert Morton theater pipe organ, which has four keyboards, about 45 ranks (each rank being a set of pipes), and sound effects ranging from trumpets to castanets.
Thanks to the ongoing restoration, funded with the help of donor Peter Crotty, an organ enthusiast, the instrument continues to improve. It sure looks better now that layers of tacky, cream-colored paint have been stripped from the original Cuban mahogany.
Taking a break from practicing, Peck answered questions about the organ, silent movie music, and even his odd-looking shoes.
You’ve accompanied about 25 silent movie presentations in the area. But this is the first time you’ll play the music for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. How are you preparing for that?
So far, I’ve seen the movie at least 10 times. At home (in Allied Gardens), I have a DVD player and a monitor right on the organ console of my Rodgers 321 B Trio, which has three keyboards. That way, I can try out different musical passages. When I start scoring, I create an outline, minute by minute. Then I select music that I think will work.
Do all of the tunes come from your old collection of silent film music?
No. One of my goals is to write at least one thing for each movie. I’m working on something now because I couldn’t find anything I liked in the collection for the transformation scene, when Jekyll becomes Hyde. It’s a pivotal point. It’s high drama.
When I heard you practicing, the transformation music sounded loud and creepy.
It’s easy to be seduced by the sound, especially the big sounds. But they can become tiresome to an audience. If you’re playing loud all the time, you have nothing to build to. It’s got to throttle back and give everyone a chance to breath.
You give characters in the movie their own themes, almost like Wagnerian leitmotifs. And a march you were practicing reminded me of Verdi.
I want the music to be operatic. There’s no singing. But I want the dramatic feel of an opera.
What’s it like to play the symphony’s magnificent monster of a pipe organ? Is it better than the kind of instruments that were usually used for silent movies in the 1920s?
It’s at least six times the size of a neighborhood theater organ. It gives you a virtually unlimited palette at your command. The sound can be big or small, dark or happy. It’s surround sound. Because of the organ pipes, and the acoustics of the hall, the sound just swirls around you. It will surprise people who haven’t heard it before.
Russ Peck playing the San Diego Symphony's Robert Morton theater pipe organ.
Do you ever improvise?
I make up little bridges between sections. I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to be doing. But I don’t like to be locked in. If a symphony orchestra performed that way, it would be a disaster. But I have that luxury because I’m the only one accompanying the film. I never play a score the same way twice. Each performance is unique.
Has anything ever gone wrong during a silent movie presentation?
Oh yes. When we did Buster Keaton’s The General at Symphony Hall, the 35mm print was bad. Despite all the efforts, the film broke and all of a sudden, the screen went black. I could see that it was going to take a while to fix. So I began to jazz up a theme and really got it going. The audience started clapping in time. People later told me that they got a tremendous kick of out and that it was the highlight of the evening. It felt like forever though it was probably only a few minutes before the image popped back on the screen.
You’re a versatile musician -- you also play piano and percussion. How did you fall in love with the sound of the organ?
A seminal moment was when I was about 11 years old and visited my aunt in Montana. She and her husband were ranchers. Their ranch house had a Hammond organ. I played it and went bonkers. Though I had been studying the piano, I wanted an organ. When we finally got our first Hammond organ, about a year later, I was in bliss.
I notice that when you play the organ, you wear unusual shoes. How come?
They’re Organmaster shoes, size 9 medium. They’re made for organists and have a suede sole, which makes them silent. They also have pointy toes and taller heels. That makes it easy to glide around on the pedals. The pedals provide the low end of the sound. They’re like the cellos, basses, and tubas in an orchestra. Playing the pedals with your feet gives you independent control. It’s like having another musician down there.
For Russ Peck, special shoes are a must.
Where will you and the organ be positioned during Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?
Half the organ console will be out of sight. The screen will be directly over and in front of me so I can see it. At the beginning of the show, the organ slowly rises out of the orchestra pit, on an “elevator.” I’m still thinking about what to play. I usually start with Rosalie, my theme song. But I might choose something scarier. If I can get it ready in time, that would be good.
Yes. Good and scary.
For tickets and more information, click here.
(Photos by Valerie Scher.)
To get an idea of the “transformation scene,” when Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde, check out this YouTube video. (Organist Russ Peck did not supply the music.)