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Movie Magic

A Live Film Score Is a Mesmerizing Experience, but Pulling It  off Takes a  Lot More Than a Lick and a Prayer–Or a Conjuring Spell

By Stefene Russell

Jurassic Park on the big screen at Powell Hall
Jurassic Park on the big screen at Powell Hall (photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat)

Unless you make movies, you go to the theater to lose yourself in the experience. You don’t sit there mentally picking apart how the scene was lit, or ruminating on the composer’s sly use of atonal music to punch up an emotionally unsettling scene. Similarly, when sitting in a symphony hall, watching a beloved film accompanied by a live orchestral score—like this season’s opener, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—you probably just want to let the experience float you away into another universe. You’re not thinking about the yards of fiberoptic cable snaking through the walls of Powell Hall. Or the fact that there are microphones smattered through the orchestra, ready to pick up the trumpets and the violins. Or that the musicians are all using booklights in the dark auditorium. Or that in addition to his usual duties, the conductor is closely watching a monitor at the podium, making sure the whole thing doesn’t roar off the tracks. In other words, as complicated as Beethoven can be, playing a live film score is probably one of the most difficult things a symphony can pull off.

“It’s challenging in a way that people don’t realize,” said Maggie Bailey, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s director of operations. “When you play a movie, sometimes you’re playing the whole time. Especially these more modern films, there’s more music throughout the whole thing. It’s demanding.”

Cellist Bjorn Ranheim enjoys the challenge. “With Harry Potter, you’re talking about John Williams, who is this incredible composer and orchestrator who can find so many colors in the orchestra,” he said, adding that he’s glad Chamber of Secrets is one of the first things the symphony will perform this year. “It will get us whipped back into shape!” he laughs.

Bailey agrees that this Harry Potter soundtrack is one of the most intricate scores the symphony will play this season. “There are more sound effects,” she explained. And because modern composers often write for instruments not in the traditional orchestral setup—like Japanese taiko drums or waterphone—it can be hard to fit everything on stage, especially while making sure everyone in the hall has a clear line of sight to the screen.

Because the symphony is integrating more film performances into its repertoire, they decided to go with a permanent failsafe: two super-bright projectors installed in the old projection booth dating back to the days when Powell Hall was the St. Louis Theater. (This year marks the 50th anniversary of its renovation from movie palace to concert hall.) If one projector fails, the other picks up right where it left off. “And if you were sitting in the audience,” Bailey said, “you would never know the difference.”

Typically, the orchestra begins by rehearsing the music all the way through. “We don’t really get the full experience from our side until the actual performance,” Ranheim said. “Some of the movies we play involve using click tracks”—a cueing system that works like a metronome—“where major portions of the orchestra have headphones on, so we can make sure the orchestra is exactly timed with the movie. That always takes a little bit of getting used to—sometimes the conductor alone will have a click track so he will know where things are, and he’ll show us everything we need.”

In the case of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (April 6–8, 2018), the conductor will be Justin Freer, who has previously worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. He is also president and founder of CineConcerts, producer of the Harry Potter concert series. Freed is a passionate opponent of click tracks, and while he says it creates an added layer of complexity for both the conductor and the orchestra to go without, there’s no other way to do it in his mind.

“The most primary challenge, definitely, is keeping everything synchronized to the picture from beginning to end,” Freer said. “But you are also faced with an added challenge of keeping things musical. In the case of John Williams, he is a musical perfectionist. He’s very good at what he does, and his phrasing is so very perfectly musical when he conducts his own music as they’re recording it.” A click track ruins that effect, because it does not allow for the music’s natural ebb and flow. “A great orchestra will fly in one direction or another direction like a flock of birds. But with a click track, it becomes very mechanical. You have no leeway. The challenge is coming up with a solution that solves both the musical phrasing issues that always exist in music, that we train from a very young age to master, and of course keeping everything synchronized as closely as possible.”

Stagehands at the mix position during the SLSO’s performance of The Lord of the Rings
Stagehands at the mix position during the SLSO’s performance of The Lord of the Rings (photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat)

Freer uses a video monitor that cues him with “punches and streamers”—a system that dates back to the silent movie era. Developed by composer Max Steiner, they began as literal holes punched into a frame, or pencil lines scratched across the film. This cues the conductor and the orchestra: punches for the downbeat of every measure and streamers to signify tempo changes. “So kind of a composer’s animation tool,” Freer explained. “It’s a visual toolkit that helps us to know where things are.”

Chamber of Secrets is an especially challenging score, thanks to the frequency of the tempo changes. “Some of them feel rather grand, from very fast to very slow,” Freer said. “There’s also just a lot of music—and the physicality involved is rather severe.” But the effect is like nothing else. “You’re surrounded by 90 pieces in the orchestra, a big screen, thousands of other people…it makes for an unforgettable experience.”

Ranheim agreed. “We’re doing more and more of these movie scores,” he said. And they’re hits with the public: nearly half the audience last season was new to Powell Hall. “These movies are so beloved, especially the earlier Harry Potter movies. They’ve been out long enough now that people who saw them as kids want to take their kids, and give them the experience of seeing these movies that they had.” Or, in the case of seeing it with a live orchestra, an experience that’s even more magical.

In addition to the Harry Potter scores, the SLSO will perform five film-related concerts this season: Jurassic Park (Nov 3–5), The Music of John Williams (Dec 21–23), DreamWorks Animation in Concert (Dec 29 and 30), North by Northwest (Feb 24 and 25), and The Music Man (May 12 and 13). For full program descriptions or to purchase tickets, visit slso.org or download the SLSO app.


Stefene Russell is the culture editor of St. Louis Magazine.