Composer-conductor Justin Freer has a passion for film music. After studying trumpet and piano, he conducted his first work, for a wind ensemble, at just age 11. Continuing his studies at UCLA, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music composition, Freer was mentored by Hollywood icon Jerry Goldsmith, revered for such scores as “L.A. Confidential” (1997), “Total Recall” (1990), “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) and “The Omen” (1976).
Now he’s making his own impact as the producer and conductor of “The Godfather Live,” featuring the Oscar-winning, 1972 film in concert, accompanied by a full orchestra. This “live to picture” event will be presented Feb. 3-4 at Symphony Center, with Freer leading members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as the film is projected in high definition above the stage.
The film’s score was written by Nino Rota, whom CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti regards as a mentor, and features 13 minutes of source music by Carmine Coppola, the Juilliard-trained composer-conductor and father of the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Perhaps the best-known of Rota’s 150 film scores, “The Godfather” evokes varied landscapes ranging from Sicily (birthplace of the Corleone family) to post-war New York.
From Sydney, Australia, where he conducted three performances Jan. 29-31 of “The Godfather Live,” Freer spoke to Sounds & Stories via email:
Chicago will mark just the fifth presentation of this project, after its debut in London in mid-December, followed by dates in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sydney. How is it going after six weeks on the road with “The Godfather”?
The observations from an audience standpoint have been wonderfully positive. With each new orchestra and each new concert hall, there are local acoustical challenges unique to each performance so I’m certainly kept on my toes no matter where I am!
How did you get involved with this project? You founded an entire company, CineConcerts, to support this pursuit?
My passion for film music began many years ago, when I was a young boy. The art form is such a special one; film acts as a delivery vehicle of music to both the singular and the masses in a way never known before film came along. CineConcerts was founded to present and preserve present these beautiful scores set to pictures in a live concert setting. “The Godfather” is easily one of the most well- made films and brilliantly composed film scores ever made. That we can present this magnificent art in this unique format is humbling, to say the least.
Why did you select “The Godfather” as one of the company’s first projects?
“The Godfather” has long been one of my favorites, and I admire what Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola accomplished musically in this film. I think this is some of the most important film and film music literature we have in our history, and I was very keen to restore the music score so that the public could share in this uniquely special film in a concert setting that was equally unique.
“The Godfather” is regarded as one of the best, if not the best, American films of the post-studio era. To what degree is the score crucial to the movie’s critical stature and/or popularity?
Nino Rota’s score is truly iconic. It gives a voice to Don Corleone, Michael Corleone, the beautiful countryside of Sicily, etc. We are able to, as an audience, live much more closely inside the characters’ minds and emotions as a result. When music is well set to film, it is truly magical. I can’t imagine falling in love with the story and characters as quickly and easily without this genius music score.
What makes the score so evocative?
The music of “The Godfather” is constantly helping us to feel what the characters are feeling, dying as they do, falling in love as they do. Rota had a particular knack for orchestration – clear, never wasteful and always sensitive to the needs of the screen.
Do you have a favorite musical segment in the film or favorite scene?
The Horse’s Head scene remains one of the most well-known in film history, and Rota’s accompanying music is particularly clever, almost nefarious, as he spins part of the Godfather Waltz material more and more out of control.
Have you gotten any reaction from Francis Ford Coppola or others from original crew/cast about this project?
Yes, he and I have been in contact and his most primary concern was that we preserved as closely as possible on the concert stage what his original intentions were.
Is Paramount, the film’s original production company and distributor, on board with this presentation?
Very much so. Paramount has been a wonderfully supportive partner in our efforts to share their incredibly deep catalog with the world in this way.
What about the efforts that went into finding the various parts of the score?
Much of the music was intact in the Paramount archives, and a good deal was not. Much of the opening wedding music needed to be restored, transcribed and rebuilt for the concert stage. Of course we needed to create a brand-new conductor score to include all of the music from front to back as well as individual parts for the musicians to read.
This production uses no click track (audio cues used to synchronize a performance to a moving image). Isn’t that fairly unusual?
Yes, I think it’s fair to say using no click track in today’s film music recording and concertizing world (especially the full-length films and scores) is unusual. It becomes much more challenging from the podium to keep everything in synch with the film, but ultimately I strongly believe it provides a much more organic performing experience.
Do you have plans to present “The Godfather ” sequels in a similar fashion?
Perhaps, we shall see!