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Pacific Symphony welcomes back organist Dennis James to perform the thrilling soundtrack to acclaimed 1920 film “The Mark of Zorro” for a night of action, mystery and romance
Orange County, Calif. — April 07, 2016
Swashbuckling musical adventures and exciting swordfights explode on screen when acclaimed organist Dennis James returns to Pacific Symphony to recreate the soundtrack to the 1920 silent-film masterpiece, “The Mark of Zorro.” Starring the legendary Douglas Fairbanks in the double role of Don Diego Vega/Señor Zorro, the Symphony’s organ concert sets imaginations ablaze and sensations reverberating when the mighty “King of Instruments” thunders forth for this special movie matinee. In the skilled hands of James, indescribable sounds emanate from the 4,322 pipes of the commanding William J. Gillespie Concert Organ to provide the film’s original score, as the classic movie plays overhead. Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance writes, “The Mark of Zorro is a landmark, not only in the career of Douglas Fairbanks, but also in the development of the action adventure film.”
“Silent films were never meant to be presented silently,” says the organist, James, currently the living embodiment of the silent-film/music tradition. “From the beginning of the motion picture era at the turn of the 20th century music was an expected element of the presentation, whether supplied by pianist, organist or band.”
“The Mark of Zorro,” a nearly century-old film starring Fairbanks as the bumbling Vega, son of wealthy ranchero Don Alejandro, is set in 19th-century Spanish California (present-day San Juan Capistrano!). Don Diego despises the oppressive colonial government and takes on the masked identity of Señor Zorro to act as a champion of the people. With surprising humor and athleticism, Zorro slashes his trademark “Z” into the faces of his enemies and leads the way for justice for all. This memorable revival takes place Sunday, May 1, at 3 p.m. in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Tickets are $10-$50. For more information or to purchase tickets call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.
“This was the very first silent film with live organ accompaniment that I saw performed,” says James. “It was in 1969 during my summer break from my organ studies, at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, Penn., where there was a Wurlitzer theater pipe organ from the 1920s still being played for shows. The film was Douglas Fairbanks in ‘The Mark of Zorro’ and the organist played his own thrilling score. It was a sold-out house and I remember eagerly turning to my dad and saying those fateful words, ‘I can do that!’ I went home that very night and wrote out the score he played just as I remembered it from that one hearing—and it serves as the core basis of my own compilation score I play to that very same film.”
If Douglas Fairbanks was perfect for the silent movie screen, “The Mark of Zorro” is perfectly suited to the expressive scope and dramatic intensity of a large concert organ. The instrument’s incomparable grandeur and versatility magnify the actors’ facial expressions and physical gestures by engaging the audience’s aural imagination.
James says, “The greatest challenge for ‘The Mark of Zorro’ is to carefully support the larger-than-life performance of its star, Douglas Fairbanks, without over-playing his thrill-seeking insouciance.”
He adds: “Pacific Symphony has become known nationwide for its ongoing focus on presenting the original period-release film music that was actually prepared for silent film screenings and heard by the audiences for whom they were created. The historically authentic and conscientious approach to film scoring has proven to be the only unassailably valid choice for the culturally responsible professional musicians of today.”
For more than 40 years, James has dedicated his professional career to the theatrical traditions of the organ and has played a pivotal role in the international revival of silent films with live music, keeping them alive for the modern times. Beginning as an accompanist for screenings at Indiana University, where he was a student, James now tours under the auspices of the Silent Film Concerts production company, performing to silent films with solo organ, piano and chamber ensemble accompaniments in addition to presentations with major symphony orchestras throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.
Performing to film at an ever-increasing number of sites throughout the world, James is celebrated for providing the most comprehensive selection of authentic silent films with live music presentations available today, using his extensive personal scoring library—the largest such private collection in existence, with contributions from musicians, studios and libraries around the world. He appears regularly in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and Philadelphia for international film festivals as a featured solo performer, as well as at the Pordenone and Rome silent film festivals in Italy.
“We’ve found these silent film programs with live organ music showcasing the great Gillespie concert organ are particular annual favorites with Pacific Symphony’s audiences,” says James. “Perhaps it’s the proximity to the movie industry; perhaps it is the incomparably dramatic tones of a magnificent organ forming an integral part of the live musical accompaniment, adding undeniably effective enhancement to the unforgettably striking images of historical films shown on the silent silver screen… Whatever it is there in Costa Mesa, I am constantly thrilled every time that audience roars with delight at those synchronous moments of sight and sound!”
The one-of-a-kind William J. Gillespie Concert Organ, built from steel, tin, oak, poplar, maple, lead and carbon fiber, required three years and 42,000 hours of labor by a team of organ builders at C.B. Fisk and made its debut in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in 2008.
The Symphony’s “Pedals and Pipes” organ series is sponsored by Valerie and Barry Hon.
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