It’s a tradeoff: those attending the Vancouver Bach Choir’s upcoming presentation of The Phantom of the Opera won’t get Andrew Lloyd Webber’s garish musical, but they will get the 1925 film version of Gaston Leroux’s 1909 novel, along with an evocative modern-day score by bassist and composer Andrew Downing. They’ll also be treated to a true when-worlds-collide experience, with the venerable choir joined by seven exceptional improvisers, including Downing himself on upright bass, François Houle on clarinet, and Chris Gestrin on that all-important organ.
And to think that it all came about due to wine. It’s not that Downing’s inspiration for updating Rupert Julian’s cinematic masterpiece came to him in a drunken stupor, however. Instead, it was suggested by the organizers of the Jackson-Triggs winery’s summer concert series, which pairs silent-film classics with contemporary music.
“I had never really thought about doing this kind of thing, but the opportunity to play a concert came up,” Downing relates by phone from his Toronto home. “So I just decided to write a bunch of music for the film that they were doing, and it happened to be Phantom of the Opera.”
Since debuting his Phantom score in 2004, Downing has gone on to write music for the German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as well as the obscure Lon Chaney vehicle The Shock.
“I just liked the way the medium lent itself to my compositional style,” he reports. “It was an opportunity to play my music for people who were interested in other things. I would get some people who were really into silent film, and other people who were really into music.”
Part of the appeal, he adds, is that using a soundless movie cuts out a lot of the grunt work of composing.
“That’s for sure!” he enthuses. “It not only gives you the narrative, it also gives you a time line. It’s kind of weird to say, in that it sounds a little bit too pragmatic, but sometimes if there’s a scene that’s six minutes long, I know that I have to write six minutes of music. As a composer, I really like writing music that feels like storytellin. So when there’s already a story being told that has no other sound to it, it’s really nice to craft music that will present that—or represent that, I guess.”
As a bonus, Julian’s vintage footage includes several scenes that call out for musical accompaniment, including the Phantom’s love-crazed organ solo. While Downing’s scores tend to be subtle and textured, that sequence will likely let Gestrin chew the musical scenery with feverish abandon.
“When the Phantom plays the organ, it’s a bit of a cliché,” the composer admits. “But it’s unavoidable!”
The Vancouver Bach Choir presents The Phantom of the Opera at the Orpheum on Saturday (February 20).