By Kyle MacMillan
Even though famed classical composers such as Aaron Copland and Sergei Prokofiev wrote for the cinema, and film composers like Bernard Herrmann created works for the symphony hall, the relationship between the two realms was long strained. Except for the occasional inclusion of movie themes on pops programs, concert programmers tended to thumb their noses at film music as commercial and superficial. But a decade or so ago, such attitudes began to shift—and quickly.
Dozens upon dozens of orchestras, from the New York Philharmonic to the Kansas City (MO) Symphony, have made movie music a regular part of their lineups. Offerings range from sets of excerpts, such as Pixar in Concert, Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage, or the “greatest hits” version of Disney’s Fantasia (which Ravinia presented in 2015), to complete films both classic and contemporary, all with their scores performed live and accompanied by a screening of the film in real time. “As this stuff got [technologically] easier, and more and more orchestras dipped their toes into it and saw what kind of ravenous audience there was for [these programs], it’s just grown exponentially,” says David Newman, an Academy Award–nominated composer and conductor whose family includes top Hollywood composers Alfred Newman (his father) and Thomas Newman (his brother).
Ravinia first ventured into this realm in the early 1990s, presenting examples of classic cinema. In 1991 the festival was host to the first Chicago-area showing of a restored print of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic Alexander Nevsky, featuring a reconstruction of Prokofiev’s original score for the 1938 film—which by then had become a concert-hall staple as a shorter cantata—performed by the Ravinia Festival Orchestra with conductor Lawrence Foster. A lighter chord was struck the following year with the screening of City Lights—which had just been enshrined in the National Film Registry—with conductor Bramwell Tovey and the Ravinia Festival Orchestra performing director Charlie Chaplin’s score. Ravinia has dived more heavily into such presentations since the arrival of Welz Kauffman as president and chief executive officer, offering two or more such film-with-live-orchestra screenings beginning in 2014, following the successes of showing one movie in each of the 2005, 2011, and 2013 seasons. “What we found is that when we put a big screen up on the [family-friendly] Lawn,” he says, “it’s an ideal way not just for parents to bring their kids to an orchestral experience but for anybody to be introduced to an orchestral experience. It’s fun and it’s musically satisfying.”
For these film presentations, the festival lowers a large screen over the stage of its 3,350-seat Pavilion that is visible to patrons inside that open-air venue as well as those seated on about 40 percent of the surrounding Lawn. It also adds another big screen facing the expansive North Lawn, but there are inevitably a few small areas on the grounds where the picture cannot be seen. And for some attendees, that is all right. “There are still people who would simply just like to listen to the music and listen to the show and don’t necessarily need to see the screen,” Kauffman says.
Ravinia’s present season includes four movies with live orchestral accompaniment, provided in three of the cases by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Two are part of the festival’s extended centenary celebration of Leonard Bernstein—On the Waterfront on August 9 and West Side Story on July 12. Also featured will be the 1984 comedy Ghostbusters on July 21, and the Disney Pixar animated film Coco, with the Chicago Philharmonic delivering the movie’s fourth concert performance ever, will arrive on September 15 as the main event of its fourth annual Fiesta Ravinia. “It makes for a nice quartet,” Kauffman says.
Movie music has been part of symphonic pops concerts at least since the 1940s, but Henry Mancini, the famed composer of scores for such movies as The Pink Panther and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, took things even further beginning around the 1960s, when he led more than 50 performances of his most popular themes each year across the United States and beyond. But David Newman, who returns to conduct On the Waterfront after leading West Side Story, points to John Williams as the biggest catalyst in changing attitudes in the classical world about film music.
Not only did Williams’s high-quality scores for films like Lincoln and the blockbuster franchises Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Harry Potter earn the respect of symphonic musicians, he won them over through the sheer force of his personality and love for the form. He has championed his music and that of other cinematic composers both as principal conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993 and through his guest engagements with myriad other orchestras. “That was at a time when orchestras just hated playing film music,” Newman says of the conductor’s tenure in Boston. “They would almost revolt if you programmed film music.”
One of the most important antecedents of today’s concert screenings took place in 1981 with a nationwide tour of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film Napoléon, with its use of three projectors side-by-side in the finale for a groundbreaking widescreen effect. Famed director Francis Ford Coppola commissioned his father, Carmine, to create a score for a reconstructed version of the film, which ran some four hours. It opened at Radio City Music Hall and toured to cities across the United States, with the composer conducting an accompanying orchestra of about 60 players. It was so popular during its stop at the Chicago Theatre that a second weekend of screenings had to be added. “It was very cool, and a lot of people [took notice],” says Peter M. Bernstein, another veteran film composer and conductor.
Accelerating the proliferation of these cinematic offerings has been rapid changes in technology. Just the shift from film to digital projectors has made it much easier to rehearse these programs, because orchestras can much more quickly roll back a movie to hone a particular musical passage in the score. Technology has also helped prepare films for concert treatment, clearing away the recorded music on the soundtrack and leaving the just the dialogue and special effects. Newer films, such as 2017’s Coco, have separate audio tracks already, allowing them to enter the repertory quickly, but for older productions, it was a painstaking process that has gotten easier with the introduction of special computer programs that draw on artificial intelligence. In the case of West Side Story, which Newman premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2011, technicians used a then-new process developed by Paris-based Audionamix to undertake the tricky separation of the singing from the instrumental music.
Technology remains less useful, though, in reassembling the scores necessary to play the music for these movies. In some cases, the original scores were destroyed by the studios and transcriptions have to be made from the recorded soundtracks. But more often, Newman says, researchers embark on what are called “treasure hunts” in the field, scouring archives for anything that might be useful. For West Side Story, he says, a “short score” (or condensed orchestral score) from the original film recording still existed, and from that a workable concert score was carefully reconstructed.
In the case of Ghostbusters, the original score is different from the music that is heard on the soundtrack, because songs were added and other changes were made as the movie was edited. Bernstein, who conducts Ravinia’s screening, had to piece together a score that matches the film, entirely reorchestrating it with a smaller instrumentation befitting a concert orchestra and replacing the three original synthesizers and ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument, with updated technological equivalents. At the same time, he returned certain bits of the original music that were not on the recorded soundtrack but make sense in a concert setting. “It’s very, very close to the film, but it’s enhanced, shall we say,” Bernstein says.
The symphonic world’s whole-hearted embrace of film music reflects both changing perceptions of the form and also a practical acknowledgement that such screenings provide vital new revenue when orchestras are facing aging audiences and shrinking ticket sales. These presentations attract attendees who in many cases have never been to an orchestra concert before, because they involve familiar titles and include an appealing visual dimension. “It’s certainly not stodgy,” says Bernstein. “It defies the image of orchestras, which are constantly having to overcome this idea that they don’t do anything that is less than 200 years old, whether it’s true or not.”
According to Bernstein, the films that work best for concert screenings are ones with scores that have something to say, that go beyond just supplying the requisite mood-inducing strains when there is action on the screen. “It’s the music that can stand alone,” he says, “because in a concert setting it’s up front. You can’t ignore it.” An ideal example is On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s Academy Award–winning 1954 film, which features the only score penned by Leonard Bernstein. Some films don’t work because they run beyond the 2½-hour time limit prescribed in most orchestral labor agreements and would require paying expensive overtime. In other cases, there are breaks in the film score that leave the orchestra with nothing to do for long stretches.
Ghostbusters might not seem like a likely choice for such treatment, as Peter M. Bernstein readily admits, because most people remember the film’s catchy theme song but not its score. “It was there to support the action,” he says, “but, of course, the person who wrote the score was a consummate film composer, and when you hear it live, you will go, ‘Oh, wow. I had no idea.’ ” The composer to which he refers is Bernstein’s celebrated father, Elmer, who wrote more than 150 scores, perhaps his most famous for the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven. Bernstein describes the Ghostbusters score as “big and powerful,” pointing out that it manages to walk the “difficult tightrope” of conveying the comedic, romantic, and supernatural aspects of the movie.
While these presentations are undoubtedly a big success now, the question is whether they are merely a fad or something that will remain a permanent part of orchestral and summer festival lineups. “I don’t think it is a trendy thing,” says Laura Karpman, an adjunct instructor in screen scoring at the University of Southern California. “I think it is a celebration of an art form that has been part of the psyche of filmgoers since talkies started going. I think this will continue.” But others in the field aren’t so sure. They see a scene that is still evolving, with orchestras and audiences still trying to figure out which films are worthy of this treatment. “None of us know what is going to happen,” Newman says. “There is a lot more product on the market than there used to be, but there’s lot more desire for it.” ▪
Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.