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PRIMER | The TSO’s Home Alone: Revisit Christmas like it’s 1990

By Brian Chang on December 7, 2018

The first time I remember hearing “O Holy Night” was watching Home Alone. I was a toddler when Home Alone first came out in theatre but in the years following, the VHS was well loved in our family.

As I grew older, the film became part of the Christmas season and I came to love its pranks and cleverness. Because of the film, “Somewhere in my memory” just always seemed like it was part of the holiday music canon. Only now, older and more experienced, can I truly appreciate the depth of a film like Home Alone.

This season, you can revisit the 1990 classic with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) and Resonance Youth Choir conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, all playing the beloved score by John Williams.

With the help of conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos and Resonance music director Bob Anderson, here are some pointers to get you started on what to expect and what to look out for:

First: there’ll be a big screen covering the stage, orchestra, and choir, but they’re there, working hard

For Resonance, Music Director Bob Anderson notes that they have never sung in a live film concert before. This will be a treat for the talented choristers as well as the listeners. And with almost 50% of the choristers new to the ensemble this year, for most of them, it is their first time performing with the TSO. Anderson is working hard with the singers to ensure that they can be as responsive as possible to what Kitsopoulos needs to bring Home Alone to life on stage

Kitsopoulos enjoys meeting the musicians every time. Guest conductors only get a couple of rehearsals with the musicians before concert time. It’s the youth choir in particular, that is different with these presentations of Home Alone. It is uncommon to program a youth or children’s choir in a film score. “I get to meet young people that are members of the youth choirs,” Kitsopoulos shares. “I usually do a piano rehearsal with them before they come to an orchestra rehearsal. They always have questions about the entertainment world and the music business. I enjoy having the opportunity to talk to young people about that kind of thing. For many of them, it’s the first time for them to sing with a full symphony orchestra. To see their faces when the sound comes at them from 70-80 instruments — the look of wonder — it’s a satisfying thing.”

As the TSO continues to add more and more film repertoire to its season, these concerts are becoming a standard feature of orchestras all over. “I’ve been doing film with live orchestras since 2004, I’ve seen it go from a few concerts a year to several concerts a year,” says Kitsopoulos. “It’s a great way to see a film; to hear the music live gives it more of a visceral edge. And it’s interesting to realize that for so many people who come to these concerts, it’s the first time that they have ever heard a symphony orchestra, live, in person. I’ve also seen kids who have come backstage afterwards who want to play instruments; who want to get involved in music.” Inspiring audiences is always the dream of any musician.

Second: Roy Thomson Hall will look very different than usual

There are a lot of wires and extra hardware in the hall for a film concert. Fabric sound mufflers hang from the upper hall and the top balcony walls to soften reverb. The speakers descend through the centre of the canopy that sits above the orchestra. The screen hangs through the canopy, suspended from the ceiling. The screen is easily seen by all of the available seats in the hall. For film concerts, the TSO doesn’t sell all the seats. The first few balcony levels closest to the stage are not for sale — if you were seated there, you wouldn’t be able to see the film.

Kitsopoulos will be visible to everyone in the auditorium from the front of the stage. The orchestra will be mostly behind the screen. Resonance in the choir loft will be mostly hidden unless your seats are off to the side of the hall. But you’ll hear them, mic’d into the hall through the speakers.

Don’t expect a bombastic IMAX, bone-rattling soundtrack. The film is audible using the hall’s ample sound system but not as loud as normal theatres so that the music is the focus. Because it is a live orchestra, the music isn’t balanced and produced on a mixing board or in post-production like it is on the original film. This is part of the magic of a live film concert — you’ll hear musical themes, phrasing, dynamics, instruments, and textures that aren’t as apparent in the film or soundtrack. Even the most avid Home Alone music fan will find something new with a live performance.

You’ll notice that the orchestra will wear earpieces. These play a metronome-like sound called a click track. An audible beat is played to help keep timing accurate with the film. As music increases or decreases tempo to match the film, so too does the click track. Kitsopoulos’ job is to help massage the phrasing, keep cues accurate, and maintain cohesion no matter what happens. He shares, “the thing with the film is, no matter what I do, the film keeps going. The overarching thing I keep in mind is that failure is not an option. I have no choice; I have to keep going. [Film concerts are] one of the most difficult genres I work in after opera.”

Third: Arrive early and sit through the entire movie, including credits

The Choir is featured in a big way at the end. “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas” is another tune John Williams wrote for Choir that doesn’t appear until after the end credits. It’s a fun jaunt originally written for Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, but is used here as an encore.  The end credits are also where most film composers reiterate and restate earlier themes. Williams is particularly proficient at creating these powerful summative themes over end credits. The end credits he wrote for the main Star Wars films are clear evidence. Musical themes that you’ve heard over the entire score will make a reappearance and you can sit back and relax, enjoying the final few minutes of music.

John Williams has scored the sounds of generations of films from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Harry Potter. (Home Alone Director Chris Columbus and composer John Williams also worked together on the first two Harry Potter films a decade after Home Alone). Musicians relish the chance to play through a William’s score. “The chance to do any John Williams score is a great opportunity,” shares Kitsopoulos, “He’s a masterful composer — in any style of music — and to put it together with a story like Home Alone. It’s a heart warming story and he has the ability to musicalize the human condition.”

Fourth: All the instrumental and choral music is live

Movies have diverse soundtracks that make up the layers of sound you hear in the finished product. A track might have straight dialogue, another sound effects, and another music. For Home Alone, the instrumental and choral music — basically John William’s score — have been extracted. All of that music is played live instead. Meanwhile, the pop songs, like “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” when Kevin is decorating the house, is played on a track like in the original film version, not live. A notable moment is when Kevin is inside the church listening to the choir sing — that is performed live.

The organ in that scene is being played this year on the Gabriel Kney Pipe Organ built into the auditorium of Roy Thomson Hall. One of the largest musical instruments in the entire country, it is always a treat to catch in action. Kitsopoulos is excited to use the pipe organ this year. “Last year, after seeing the instrument in the hall,” he says, “I asked if we could use it for the church scenes. It adds another dimension. Organs can be very soft and subtle. In the film, it’s used in three of the cues; two are just choir and organ. Later on, the organ comes in with the orchestra. The thing about a pipe organ, when you set it up for a softer, warmer sound, you can feel the air moving through the pipes.” Unfortunately, the screen will be blocking the action but you might catch a glimpse of the organ windows opening and closing as instrument works.

Fifth: It’s okay to be a bit sad and lonely during the holiday

The opening few minutes of the film set a strong tone with complicated family dynamics. Everyone is running around, parents are distracted, cousins are mean, aunts and uncles are rude, and you feel the disconnection Kevin feels. It takes the entire movie for this disconnect to resolve, and it does so in fantastic fashion, with big hug from mom and a swell in the orchestra. This emotional core unites all the elements of the movie, and it is music that links these feelings. For example, the main theme of the music is also the main theme for “Somewhere in my Memory”; it is the first thing we hear in the film; it plays as Kevin is lonely walking at night down the street, and it plays as Kevin and his mom are reunited.

“The ideas of family coming together around the holidays is something I always keep in mind,” shares Kitsopoulos. “There are so many families, especially in the [US], that are having difficulty getting together for various reasons. I also think about military folks stationed away from their homes. It’s something I’ve experienced travelling so often for work; there have been many times where I’ve been away from home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or the Jewish holidays. It’s a tough thing to handle sometimes. When you have a movie that highlights this separation, but does it in a humorous way, it’s a way to alleviate the loneliness for some people.”

There’s a universal message in there too, that you can ponder while listening to the stirring theme – sometimes we need to slow down and cherish the people we hold dear. So take your loved ones to Roy Thomson Hall and let the magic of 1990 wash over you with Home Alone.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents the live film concert of Home Alone, featuring the Resonance Youth Choir. Dec, 6 & 7, 7:30 p.m., Dec. 8 2 p.m. & 8pm at Roy Thomson Hall. Visit www.tso.ca for tickets.

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