If you haven’t seen a symphony orchestra play a movie score while the movie runs in sync on a big screen, you may be wondering what the fuss is all about. In recent years, performances of this type have become increasingly popular, with concert versions of audience favorites such as Star Wars, Home Alone and E.T. taking place from the Hollywood Bowl to Lincoln Center. These productions bring in droves of paying customers to cash-strapped classical ensembles. At the same time, they demystify the symphony orchestra and show new audiences that these ensembles not only do not bite – they can entertain and amuse the most resistant listener.

Ludovic Morlot
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

I had my first taste of the growing phenomenon on 18th February with a showing of the classic Vincente Minnelli film An American in Paris. Presenting this event in Verizon Hall under the rubric “A Symphonic Night at the Movies,” the Philadelphia Orchestra was in full force under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, recently appointed conductor of the Barcelona Symphony.

During a Friday matinee, the full orchestra stretched across Verizon Hall’s broad prow, instruments gleaming in the golden light. A good-sized audience, a little hard to measure considering the social distancing protocols in effect, chatted merrily right up to the rousing overture as the film, projected on a screen high above the stage, opened with nostalgic scenes of Paris. Winner of multiple Academy Awards in 1952, it blends humor, romance and toe-tapping music by George Gershwin. Stars Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron and Oscar Levant still shine brightly some 70 years after this film was released, while the eye-roll-worthy puns in Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay elicited waves of laughter – sometimes more raucous than what is usually heard in a concert hall. The film (with intermission) ran more than two hours and included some material often cut, such as Levant’s long piano solo in one of several dream sequences.

Morlot deserves high praise for managing this flow of delightful music, including such familiar tunes as “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm”, and keeping the entire ensemble in sync with the screenplay, no easy task. He did this in part by watching the film unfold on a monitor placed next to the score on his music stand. When leading these performances, conductors may rely on “click tracks” (a kind of digital metronome) and other visual cues so they don’t miss a beat.

Performing movie music can be just as challenging as the classical repertoire. That being said, getting the balance right between live music and the fixed narration of a film was occasionally problematic in this production. The voices of the actors could be excruciatingly loud, while the full orchestra was deafening at other times. These are minor quirks to be worked out in future performances. For now, movie night with a live orchestra sounds like an idea whose time has come.