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FEATURE | A Look At The Growing Trend Of Movie Screenings With Live Orchestra

By Anya Wassenberg on February 16, 2018

“It’s one of the hardest things I do — and that’s true of any conductor.” The admission comes from conductor Emil de Cou, and the subject may come as something of a surprise — live music performed alongside a movie screening.

It’s a form of symphonic performance that is becoming more and more popular across North America and in Toronto in particular. The TSO programs well-attended movie and live orchestra performances, and Attila Glatz Concert Productions presents the Cinematic Concert Series partnered with the Sony Centre. Torontonians, it seems, have a healthy appetite for classic movies and live orchestral pairings.

Andrea Warren is VP Marketing & Project Development at Attila Glatz Concert Productions, one of the first companies to jump head first into the movies and music production biz. “We jumped on this exciting bandwagon in 2014,” she says. “It’s something we were fascinated in the moment we heard about it.”

Licensing agreements are negotiated by the industry, making a list of titles available for the live music treatment at any given time. “We can cherry pick,” Warren says. Based in Toronto, Attila Glatz Concert Productions deals with productions in 25 different cities at any given time, and several different film titles, including The Godfather, and Gladiator.

Movie music, to some, may not occupy as high a place in the musical spectrum as the usual classical fare on offer at the TSO. But, Gary Hanson, TSO’s Interim Chief Executive Officer, isn’t having any of it. “It’s misplaced criticism.”

Hanson previously worked with the Cleveland Orchestra, where he remembers programming live orchestral performances with movie screenings as long as a decade ago. Those early performances featured silent movies that were, in fact, originally screened with live music. “It’s worth noting that this is as old as films,” he says. The TSO’s love affair with movies began several years ago with screenings from the Toronto International Film Festival, and the numbers show that it’s growing in popularity. “Generally, the film score presentations sell out.”

The TSO selects its projects based largely on musical criteria. “It’s on the basis of the richness of the orchestral score,” Hanson explains.

Emil de Cou took up the baton for the TSO’s performance of The Wizard of Oz in February 2018. Along with occasional guest conducting gigs, the American conductor is the music director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, and has served as the principal conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Wolf Trap performances for many years. The NSO performed the world premiere live performance of The Wizard of Oz at Wolf Trap in 2006.

Maestro de Cou remembers his first time. “It was the single most difficult thing I’d done.”

He points out a number of challenges. With an older film like Wiz, there is no click track; as the conductor, he views the movie as the audience does. At the top of each page of the score, the timing is noted. The performance must coincide with the action of the film to within one-quarter of a second, or the lag becomes noticeable.

Some challenges are specific to the movie. Maestro de Cou points to the difficulty in places like the Munchkin song in the Wizard of Oz score. The vocals were actually recorded in a lower range, and then sped up to achieve that distinctive Munchkin sound.

There are also technical issues. The TSO, for example, is a much larger orchestra than the one that played on the soundtrack in 1939. Some sections of a score may have been played originally with only a small ensemble, and the instrumentation can be challenging. “Trying to control this big orchestra, as it needs to be to fill a concert hall, adds another layer.” The film edits he works with often contain small errors that can affect timing by that all-important quarter-second or more.

Hearing the score performed live can illuminate musical detail. “There are still thing you can hear with live performance that you can’t hear in the movie.” He points to a section of the Wizard score that calls for an alto flute. In the movie, the music is overwhelmed with the sounds of a storm, and barely noticeable.

Andrea Warren notes the difficulty of the Harry Potter series in particular. “This is one of the only shows the musicians take the scores home to practice,” she says. “This music is nothing to laugh at.” The Glatz Cinematic Concert Series is presenting all eight of the Harry Potter movies. “For the players, this is every bit as challenging.”

John Williams is the household name of contemporary movie music composers. Everyone knows the iconic themes of Star Wars and his many other movie scores, but not so many are aware that the rest of the music is atmospheric and often complex. “John Williams makes the orchestra a character in the movie,” Hanson says. “They make musical effects to highlight the tiniest details.”

Live performance puts the music literally and figuratively centre stage. “We’re shining a spotlight on the score,” Hanson says. “The Birds would not be a terrifying movie without the score.”

As Warren points out, “If music is written well, it underpins the drama of the film.”

“It just adds an extra colour element,” explains Maestro de Cou. Emotions are ramped up and the audience experience is more intense. He mentions viewing a concert performance of E.T. at Kennedy Center Washington, DC. “At the end, everyone was in tears.” It’s the goal of a film composer. “They’re all playing on emotions in a very deliberate way.”

For Maestro de Cou, however challenging, the performances are a labour of love. “I love the old films I grew up with. It becomes like a folktale or fairy tale.” He cites E.T. The Extraterrestrial, Jurassic Park, and La La Land as being recent favourites among the several titles he has conducted in similar performances. “I’ve enjoyed every score I’ve done.”

Each requires a different approach. As he tells it, the first time he saw Jurassic Park, he was struck by the fact that the pivotal attack scenes are run entirely without background music. “That would be a composer’s dream,” he says. But, sometimes there are other considerations. “There is a psychological effect in silence,” he acknowledges.

Along with popularity and sold-out shows, there is the matter of audience development. Audiences for movie and music concerts attract an all-ages crowd. According to Maestro de Cou, “It’s very hard in classical music to get that under-40 crowd.”

In attracting a potentially younger crowd and newcomers to the orchestral concert scene, there is a spillover into mainstream symphonic concerts. “Yes, there is a proportion that first comes to a film score presentation that will come to another orchestral performance,” Hanson reports.

Attila Glatz Concert Productions chooses its projects in partnership with the Sony Centre, looking at the Toronto audience, and considering both the movie and the musical score. “Is that something Torontonians want to see again?” As she points out, the shows involve concert ticket pricing, and not movie ticket pricing, so the movie needs to stand on its own.

“For a lot of people, it’s their first time listening to an orchestral performance,” Warren says. Glatz gets feedback from audiences in the forms of letters and emails, and first-timers are routinely impressed by the musical component. “It’s eye-opening for our audiences for sure.”

She’s enthusiastic about the results. “It’s ideal for performance, but it reaches so many people. No matter how good the sound system, there’s nothing like it.” For her, the experience boils down to an essential question. “What role does music have in controlling our emotions? These performances show people.”


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