During November's Film Month, Bachtrack explored film scores by classical composers, from silent film scores to Hollywood soundtracks. Orchestras increasingly perform concerts of film music and we were interested to discover how popular these were and if their approach to playing – and recording – such music is in any way different to standard concert repertoire.

Few orchestras record as much film music as the London Symphony Orchestra, so we asked LSO violinist Maxine Kwok-Adams about the process. The main difference recording a film soundtrack as opposed to a straight classical disc is the unpredictability. “We can arrive at a studio such as Abbey Road often not knowing what is about to be recorded that day!” she exclaims. “Secondly, the sheet music arrives on the stand literally hot off the press, often due to secrecy surrounding the film, or if the composer has been writing up until the last moment. So there's no preparation as such and orchestral players need to be very quick at assimilating the new music as the red light goes on to record almost immediately.”

London Symphony Orchestra recording Star Wars Episode 3 in 2005 © Michael Humphrey
London Symphony Orchestra recording Star Wars Episode 3 in 2005
© Michael Humphrey

Kwok-Adams also reveals that the content of the film itself is occasionally under wraps. “Often the film will have a working title which doesn't give away much of the plot, but more often than not we can see the film on a big screen whilst we record so we get a sense of what we are recording. At times, we have the privilege of a director being present, such as Kenneth Branagh who will often come into the studio to give us some directions as to the feel of a particular scene.”

Ernst Van Tiel, of the Brussels Philharmonic, explains that when recording film scores, “there is less freedom in timing,” as the music has to fit the action precisely. This is also the case when performing film scores to a live screening of a film, a concept which has really taken off in recent years. Conductors will often work to a click-track to synchronise score and screen.

So how good is the film repertoire? Anthony Brown, of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, argues that “there is a lot of merit in film scores as good symphonic music and therefore worthy of concert performance. Of course there are good film scores and not so good film scores as there is with any composition. The film music genre grew out of the romantic Viennese tradition with persecuted composers like Erich Korngold and Max Steiner who moved out to Hollywood in the 1930s. There is a definite link from them to the music of John Williams.”

Van Triel argues that the most important thing is to play good symphonic repertoire, regardless of its provenance. “We include suites from operas and ballets in our concerts, so why not suites from film scores?”

Davide Luigi Bassino and Luca Ripanti, from the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale RAI, explained that concerts of film music are popular in Turin, but they attract a very different audience from their usual concerts. “ After the worldwide fame of Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota (among others), film music has become quite popular in Italy. We staged a concert based on Rota’s film music and the festival Il Suono delle Immagini in 2014, but the audience is quite different; there is no strict connection between the two type of audiences.”

Alexandre Desplat © Depardiou
Alexandre Desplat
© Depardiou

The LSO recently gave a concert of music by Alexandre Desplat, with a whole raft of films to his credit, including The Grand Budapest Hotel and The King’s Speech. Kwok-Adams argues that “it gives people a chance to hear the intricacies of his award-winning scores without the music being lost under dialogue or action. I personally think film music concerts have a valid place in the concert hall without the need to stage them in order to build new audiences for classical repertoire. The LSO has a rich history of recording film scores with John Williams, Patrick Doyle and Alexandre Desplat to name but a few, so it's fitting to honour these composers we have worked with so closely by giving their music a platform. Anything that encourages people who are new to the concept of live music to find their way into the concert hall for film or game music can only be a positive step. Perhaps the experience won't seem so daunting and the next time they may be tempted to try out a classical concert.”

In Bournemouth, Brown feels that film music does appeal to new audiences. “Over 500 under 18s saw the last BSO film concert in Bristol – a total audience of over 1800 people, 75% of whom were brand new customers. There is potential for cross over and that is the skill of the marketing team to offer possibilities to current customers and make sure that the more traditional concert is still going to be enjoyed – with no false promises.”