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ON THE RADAR | The Toronto Symphony Orchestra Heads Down The Yellow Brick Road

By Brian Chang on February 13, 2018

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents The Wizard of Oz with Live Orchestra conducted by Emil de Cou. Saturday, February 17, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, February 18, 3 p.m. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

“The Wizard of Oz is one of the most difficult movies I have worked on”, says conductor Emil de Cou. Having spent 20 years conducting film scores, he is no stranger to film music or the Wiz. He was the first to do a live concert format of the Wizard of Oz at (American) National Symphony Orchestra Wolf Trap, the American national park devoted to music, in 2006. As part of the (American) National Symphony Orchestra, Wolf Trap and de Cou have played host to many live film concerts like Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Last in Toronto in 2011 conducting the same program, he looks forward to exploring the score with the TSO again.

The Wiz represents a different time and era of music and movie-making, when music was more integrated and resourced in the process. De Cou talks about the famous cyclone scene as a case in point. What took the orchestrators and musicians a month to put together is only about three minutes on film. This is unheard of in modern composing; spending that much time and effort on one scene’s music. Moreover, because of the technology available at the time, the detailed effort and thought is lost over the roar of the wind machine. “But the care — english horn, bass flute,” de Cou shares, “you don’t hear these things. The only time you hear it all in its brilliance is in live concert.”

In that era of moviemaking, all the studios had multiple orchestras who recorded different parts of the score. The cyclone scene, de Cou explains, “was made up of 85 players working away” while the musicians in “Over the Rainbow” were much fewer. The challenge in a live performance is to recreate the music despite original conditions and the less than ideal soundtrack and recording that survives. But, the longevity of the soundtrack continues. The Wizard of Oz is unique in that it was “the first major musical to ever record the orchestral, and voice tracks as separately as they could,” says de Cou. In fact, the songs were all “recorded before the filming began,” says de Cou, “with the tracks played back as the characters lip-synced during filming.” Because of the track isolation, there is less compression and better original sound quality; this has contributed to the film’s longevity and its ability to be performed now, almost 80 years later.

The music is not easy, “in 1939, Los Angeles had hundreds of top-rate musicians as every major studio had their own full symphony orchestra,” shares de Cou, “the arrangers and composers wrote for some of the best musicians in the country as a result.” The stamina required to play through the work is immense, even more so because the entire film is underscored – there is next to no silence – instruments are almost constantly playing. For musicians like TSO Principal Double Bassist Jeffrey Beecher, “it can be a heavy lift physically, but also so much fun,” he says. These are professional musicians, used to the rigours and resiliency needed to go through punishing film scores like Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings or a Wagner Ring Opera.

New and old audiences alike will have much to gain from watching this film again. De Cou thinks of the film and its music in three major components. We start off in sepia, and a bland, lonely visual as Dorothy’s loneliness and disenchantment are made clear. “Over the Rainbow” is a very simple tune without huge orchestrations and heavy instrumental sound. Its effectiveness is in its simplicity.

The second major change ties into technicolour “and the music is suddenly incredibly vivid and colourful as it comes to life,” says de Cou. A wordless women’s chorus greets this transition. And nothing is quite as unique to the film as “Munchkinland.” Here, the conducting gets tricky as de Cou shares “the voices of the Munchkins were sped up to sound higher which also made them less rhythmically accurate;” making this section one of the hardest to align. De Cou doesn’t use a click track with the orchestra, knowing the score well. Musicians play and respond to his conducting and tempi as they would any other music.

And then finally, we’re back in Kansas, and the return of the sepia-tones. It is different now though, having gone through the visual and musical journey, shares de Cou, “the music is poignant, in counterpoint, not intrusive and plays on emotions. In a philosophical way, we are all looking for home.” So when the music returns, with the underscoring of “Over the Rainbow,” “it’s so effective at the end because we’ve heard it before. The sentiment, it manipulates the audience.”

De Cou has experience watching films without the music, with just dialogue and sound effects; it doesn’t have the same emotional impact. De Cou gives the ending of E.T. as an example: the famous bicycle escape scene which Spielberg famously cut to fit John Williams’ score; “it totally transformed everything you see,” he says, “everyone is in tears at the end of the movie because of the music. It bypasses your mind and goes straight to your heart.” The Wiz has the same effect.

“Performances like this are great for kids & families,” says de Cou, “people feel like they are buying a ticket to a movie instead of a symphony.“ Musicians and audiences alike love these increasingly popular presentations of live film concerts. “We share the same passion for films as our audience,” shares Beecher, “the stories, the actors, and of course the scores. For many of us, that first time listening to a John Williams score is what inspired us to be a musician.”

“It’s a special treat to be able to accompany an iconic voice like Judy Garland’s,” says Beecher, “And we’ll be just as excited by the flourish of technicolour as the audience.” The Wizard of Oz is a timeless classic and what better way to reintroduce it to new generations than through music. “It speaks on so many levels,” says de Cou, “everyone grew up with this music and this film as children. It is imprinted in our group musical DNA. It is all music we know and love.”

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, The Wizard Of Oz With Live Orchestra takes place on Feb. 17 & 18 at Roy Thomson Hall. www.tso.ca


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