From the New York Philharmonic to the Kansas City Symphony, dozens of American orchestras have made movie music a part of their programming. Offerings range from excerpts, such as “Pixar in Concert” 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 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,” said David Newman, an Oscar-nominated composer-conductor whose family includes top Hollywood composers Alfred Newman (his father) and Thomas Newman (his brother).
In the early 1990s, Ravinia first ventured into this realm by presenting examples of classic cinema. In 1991, the festival hosted the first Chicago-area showing of a restored print of Sergei Eisenstein’s epic “Alexander Nevsky” (1938), featuring a reconstruction of Prokofiev’s original score, performed by the Ravinia Festival Orchestra with conductor Lawrence Foster. A lighter chord was struck the following year with the screening of “City Lights” (1931), with conductor Bramwell Tovey and the Ravinia Festival Orchestra performing director Charlie Chaplin’s score.
Since the arrival of Welz Kauffman as president and chief executive officer, Ravinia has dipped more heavily into such fare. “What we found is that when we put a big screen up on the lawn, 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,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s musically satisfying.”
Ravinia’s present season includes four movies with live orchestral accompaniment, provided by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in three cases. Two films are part of the festival’s extended centennial celebration of Leonard Bernstein: “On the Waterfront” (1954) on Aug. 9 and “West Side Story” (which occurred on July 12). Also featured will be the comedy “Ghostbusters” (1984) on July 21, and the Disney/Pixar animated film “Coco” (2017), with the Chicago Philharmonic on Sept. 15.
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’ scores for 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 as principal conductor of the Boston Pops from 1980 to 1993 and through his guest engagements with other orchestras. “That was at a time when orchestras just hated playing film music,” Newman said of the conductor’s tenure in Boston. “They would almost revolt if you programmed film music.”
Accelerating the trend have been rapid changes in technology. The shift 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 also has been essential in preparing 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 “Coco,” have separate audio tracks already, 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.
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.
According to experts, the films that work best for concert screenings have scores that go beyond just supplying the requisite mood-inducing strains. “It’s the music that can stand alone,” said conductor Peter M. Bernstein, who will conduct the CSO in “Ghostbusters,” whose score was composed by his father, 14-time Oscar nominee Elmer Bernstein. “In a concert setting, it’s up front. You can’t ignore it.” An ideal example is “On the Waterfront,” which features the only film score penned by Leonard Bernstein. Some films don’t work because they run beyond the time limits proscribed in most orchestral labor agreements. In other cases, there are breaks in the film score that leave the orchestra with nothing to do for long stretches.
While these presentations are undoubtedly a big success, the question remains, are they merely a fad or a permanent part of orchestral programming? “I don’t think it is a trendy thing,” said 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.”
But others see a scene that is still evolving. “None of us know what is going to happen,” Newman said. “There is a lot more product on the market than there used to be, but there’s lot more desire for it.”
Kyle MacMillan, classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
Note: This is a condensed version of an article published in the Ravinia magazine. To read the complete version, click here.
TOP: Ravinia patrons on the lawn watch and listen to a live-to-picture presentation. | Photo: Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival