Organist Peter Richard Conte and the silent movie classic “Metropolis”

Written by:
Lewis Whittington
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In 1926, German director Fritz Lang stunned international audiences with his masterpiece Metropolis and its depiction of a false utopia that hovered over futuristic slums housing an enslaved underclass whose only function was to keep the city running for the rich. Lang conjured a chilling art- deco fantasia with cinematographer by Karl Freud that anticipated film noir and influenced a generation of filmmakers. Not to mention inspiring a cult following among audiences.

Flash forward 90 years and you realize that Metropolis can still be the hottest time-traveling ticket in town -at least for one night in Verizon Hall- with the film’s score being played live by Phiadelphia organ virtuoso Peter Richard Conte.

Conte interprets the music with a driving expressionist approach ala Lang, using the silent film’s original Leif motifs, which he cadenzas and explores. Conte doesn’t pull back from vamping this side of the phantom in such classic (now campy) screen moments as the robotic ‘Maria’ lewdly dances on top of the serpentine platform as the ‘sons of industry’ slobber and leer at her. The music and images inspiring lusty laughter in the concert hall.

There are so many ripe organ moments in prophetic scenes as Metropolis’s ruthless CEO building a new Tower of Babel where everyone speaks the same language but no one understands each other. You have to wonder if it is a coincidence that this audience was particularly interested in experiencing it again in an election year when political megalomania looms.

When the rich son ventures out of his utopian world into the workers dismal and hopeless underworld, he becomes a heroic leader of the revolt of the workers. Meanwhile the trolling mad scientist has sabotage of his own brewing, to destroy Metropolis. He kidnaps Maria, the underground spiritual leader of the downtrodden workers who gives them guidance and comfort in the city’s dark catacombs. He transposes her image in a mad experiment onto a robotic woman who leads the revolt of the workers against the powers that be.

The film in fact was heavily edited at the time of its release for its quasi-socialist and otherwise scabrous political subtext. In 2008 a damaged, but complete print of Lang’s original print was discovered in a museum in Argentina (curious, no?) and was almost completely restored and shown in cinemas in Germany in 2010.

Since the success of Michel Hazanavicius 2011’s Academy Award winning silent film The Artist, silent film events have been more of a marquee draw. Verizon Hall also had sell-outs in recent years with screenings of Alexander Nevsky with the score by Prokofiev and particularly West Side Story.
Conte received a well deserved standing ovation after he played the Metropolis score for over two hours on the Fred J. Cooper Memorial organ and using pretty much all of its 700 pipes. The audience marveled as he danced over the keyboards, stops and foot petals rendering a full orchestral sound and filmic effects that engulfed the hall.

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