Hidden from small

Let’s Go Hear a Movie

April 02, 2015

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re settled into a comfortable seat in Verizon Hall about to enjoy a superb live orchestral concert by the fabulous Philadelphia Orchestra! While we may think of orchestral music only in terms of live performances in acoustically tuned halls, the sound of orchestral instruments is perhaps more ubiquitous outside the concert hall than we realize. Audiences worldwide hear symphonic music every day: And they’re not even sitting in a concert hall! Orchestral music is omnipresent in films, video games, and television, enjoyed by millions of people all the time.

Suzie Templeton’s Oscar-winning Claymation film Peter & the Wolf Live will be shown in concerts April 16-18 while the Orchestra performs Prokofiev’s score. Photo: BreakThru Films

This incredible output of orchestral music far outweighs what’s created exclusively for the concert hall each year. And thus, says Jeremy Rothman, vice president for artistic planning, the Orchestra looks to tease out some of the true gems of film music that will stand the test of time, and are worthy of sitting alongside the great masterworks it performs so regularly.

The line between serious “concert hall” music and other forms of entertainment has been blurry for ages, ever since music written for opera, ballet, or theater found its way onto the orchestral stage. That line got even less distinct once music was added to movies, starting with so-called “silent” films. They were frequently shown with a live musical accompaniment: piano, organ, even orchestra. (One big reason for the musical enhancement: Those silent films weren’t very silent, thanks to noisy, distracting projectors; early exhibitors figured the music would cover up the racket.) Once movies found their voice in the “talkies,” there was no turning back. A movie without music became almost unthinkable.

An important part of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s history is tied up with film, thanks to the 1940 masterpiece Fantasia, featuring classical music thrillingly realized by Walt Disney’s animators. Leopold Stokowski led the Philadelphians in Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (in his own orchestration); Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastoral”); even Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (already a classic less than three decades after its tumultuous premiere).

A still from Disney’s Fantasia. Photo: © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Of course the music in Fantasia wasn’t written specifically for the film. But at about the same time that Fantasia was taking shape in Disney’s fertile imagination, Hollywood was attracting a new generation of composers, who would leave an indelible impression on the movies, showing how critical a good score could be to the success of a film.

Even if you don’t know their names, you know their work: Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca); Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon, The High and the Mighty); Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk); Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound, Ben Hur).

Not only did many of these film composers also write for orchestras, but Rothman points out that virtually all the major composers of the 20th century wrote for the movies as well, including such giants as Shostakovich, Copland, and Bernstein.

Over the years, this back and forth between the concert hall and the movie theater has created countless indelible pairings: Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant use of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra and György Ligeti’s Atmosphères in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Ravel’s Bolero in 10; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in Elvira Madigan. And beyond specific works, Rothman says there are echoes of Orff, Rachmaninoff, and Verdi in many of today’s most popular movie soundtracks (not to mention video games and TV commercials).

The Philadelphia Orchestra prides itself on commissioning new works and has a storied history of U.S. and world premieres. But the Orchestra has also taken advantage of what Rothman calls “this incredible machine that creates remarkable film scores.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra performing the score to West Side Story at the Mann Center in 2014. Photo: Derek Brad

This season alone has already featured excerpts from As You Like It (a 1936 film starring Laurence Olivier, with music by William Walton); Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony (from Fantasia); selections from The Gadfly (a 1955 Soviet film with a score by Shostakovich); the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (Leonard Bernstein, 1957); Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (used in Death in Venice, 1971); and the above-mentioned Also sprach Zarathustra and Atmosphères.

In recent seasons, the Orchestra has also played the score live for screenings of West Side Story, Gladiator, Star Trek into Darkness, and Alexander Nevsky. And they return to the metaphorical movie house for this spring’s Peter & the Wolf Live, performing Prokofiev’s sparkling original score for a live screening of the 2008 Oscar®winner for best animated short film (April 16-18).

No discussion of movies and the music would be complete without mentioning John Williams, arguably the most listened to composer of the 20th century. Rothman says, “He has a gift for melody and for orchestration; his music speaks immediately in that sense. He’s also extremely fluid in almost every musical style of the world. He’s able to capture so vividly and accurately different geographies, cultures, and sounds. And you can say the same of all the great composers that we still perform today: Whether it was Tchaikovsky trying to capture an Italian style, or Rimsky-Korsakov trying to capture a Spanish style, or Copland writing Cuban music, the great composers had this way of adapting other genres and styles into their own sound.”

On April 23-25 the Orchestra performs excerpts from Williams’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind with principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève on the podium. A huge champion (and personal friend) of the composer, Denève returns next season to conduct Williams’s Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, his Violin Concerto with James Ehnes, and Tributes! For Seiji, written in honor of the legendary conductor Seiji Ozawa. And (fanfare, drumroll): John Williams himself conducts many of his most beloved movie pieces next spring in a special benefit concert.

The music of John Williams is featured on Orchestra concerts this April and next spring, all led by Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève. In addition Williams himself conducts a special benefit concert in May 2016. Photo: Todd

Rothman admits he got some raised eyebrows when the Orchestra programmed Williams. “There are people who refer to film music as being watered-down or derivative,” because it wasn’t written for the concert hall. But as he points out, much of the core repertoire the Orchestra performs regularly was originally created for other media: We’re comfortable hearing The Rite of Spring and The Firebird without the ballet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream without the play; overtures without their attached opera score. “This concept that music has to be purely a concert art form in order to be presented is really a false precept in my opinion.”

As to John Williams specifically, Rothman points out that some of the most famous movie scenes ever (for example, when the shark finally appears in Jaws) make absolutely no sense without Williams’s music. “The question is, if you listen to the music without the scene, does the music make any sense? That’s where you do find a great film score for the concert hall, one that can project drama and tension and have an architecture to it outside of the visuals it was designed to accompany,” a score that is creating original, fresh ideas, often blending different styles and forms.

“Take a piece like Close Encounters,” says Rothman. “It combines a very popular tune (‘When You Wish Upon a Star’) with this very avant-garde Ligeti-sounding sound world. Those are the kinds of things that are really creative pieces of music that can stand on their own” with or without a film.

Rothman maintains it doesn’t matter how we first encounter classical music: whether hearing the theme to The Lone Ranger or listening to “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and realizing it’s Rachmaninoff, or laughing along to classic cartoons with equally classic music tracks. “However you come to the music, it takes you on that journey to explore the piece further and experience it in your own way. That’s what’s great about art: You bring your own experience, taste, and lens to it.”

What’s the future of movie music in the concert hall? Rothman says it will be fascinating to see in coming years and decades how this music endures. We can only hope Al Jolson was prescient when he uttered these immortal lines in the very first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer: “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”

Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.