“Our film concerts are like nothing else that we do. We have many people hearing an orchestra live for the first time, and there’s a real sense of wonder and excitement coming from the audience. In the interval, the atmosphere in the hall is buzzing, and there’s an incredible response on social media too”.

Talking to Cat McQuiggan of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, it’s easy to understand why the orchestra’s film music concerts generate such enthusiasm. It’s tempting to assume that orchestras put on film concerts simply as a way of raising money to fund their more esoteric activities, but this certainly isn’t the case with the RSNO, who are clearly passionately committed to film music as a genre. Their expanding movie seasons draw on the orchestra’s long history of recording scores and performing on original soundtracks, and they bring in conductors who have first-hand experience of the film world, most notably Richard Kaufman, who played violin on many of John Williams’s original scores.

The superlatives fly around when it comes to John Williams, and naturally the RSNO have always included plenty of his music in their film concerts, but Kaufman’s involvement takes these performances to a new level. The orchestra benefit musically from his close association with the composer, as having Kaufman is probably as close as you can get to being conducted by Williams himself. He’s an engaging and witty presenter too, regaling the audience with a rich store of Hollywood anecdotes between pieces. This isn’t all though: Kaufman also has access to John Williams’s private library, giving the orchestra the opportunity to not only go beyond the published concert versions of his scores but also perform some of his unpublished music.

This is why, in their 2017/18 season, the RSNO are moving beyond the general “Music of John Williams” concerts that they’ve given in the past and are devoting an entire concert just to the music of Star Wars. As McQuiggan explained, and as I noticed myself when I watched the original film again to prepare for this article (any excuse!), there is so much music in the films beyond just the Imperial March or the main Star Wars theme, and fans love the opportunity to hear more of it.

The orchestra have also started presenting live screenings, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Film Festival, in which the film itself is shown, with the orchestra playing the soundtrack live (click tracks and subtle adjustments from the projectionists keep everything together, in what must be quite a feat of coordination). This year’s EIFF presentation is another John Williams classic, the Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark. According to the RSNO, 75% of the audience at these live screenings have never heard the orchestra before, and they have doubled their household reach across Scotland: a source of pride for an organisation that markets itself as “Scotland’s National Orchestra”. McQuiggan explained, “it’s exciting for the musicians to see the reaction of the audience. When you bring music to people who have never experienced the powerful, almost overwhelming sound of a live orchestra, it reminds you that what you’re doing is really very special”.

Many pieces from the classical repertoire have gained in popularity because they’ve been used in films, and some of these will feature in the season’s closing concert “Classics at the Movies” on 15-17 June 2018. This is also the direction that RSNO are taking as they expand their live screening programme. The ending of Brief Encounter, with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto heightening the emotions is heartbreaking enough when you see it on screen; with a live orchestra, I imagine the effect must be devastating. For Amadeus, which closes their 2016-17 film season on 19 and 20 May, the RSNO Chorus also get involved, and this one will no doubt appeal to the many people to attended the chorus’s recent “come and sing” Mozart Requiem. When the live screenings were announced at the season launch though, it was not Brief Encounter that drew the biggest reaction from the classical audience, but (rather surprisingly) Hitchcock’s Psycho. Like the farewell in Brief Encounter, I imagine that the murder scene must be even more powerful with that terrifying, jagged string writing screaming out from the orchestra on stage.

Patricia Ward Kelly
Patricia Ward Kelly

As well as the ever-popular John Williams scores and the films with classical music, the RSNO are also taking in good old-fashioned Hollywood glamour with two evenings dedicated to the great Gene Kelly. The first of these, on 23 November, is an audience with Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene Kelly’s wife and biographer, who will bring clips and memorabilia to illustrate her behind-the-scenes glimpse of Kelly’s life and work. This evening forms a prequel to two concert events in February 2018, in which fans will be able to see the extraordinary sight of Gene Kelly dancing on screen to the accompaniment of a live orchestra, again presented by Patricia Ward Kelly. What makes this even more special is that many of the scores to Kelly’s movies were destroyed in a huge fire at the MGM studios, and have had to be carefully reconstructed from the movie soundtracks – restoring lost scores is an art that is not confined to the early music world!

A final point about film music is that even when it’s accompanying light entertainment like Star Wars or Harry Potter, it’s not necessarily easy music to play. I’m told that some of John Williams’s violin parts, for example, are incredibly challenging, whilst the Star Wars music is a real chance for the brass section to shine. It also gives members of the orchestra a chance to bring their wider musical skills to the concert stage ‒ McQuiggan told me about how principal trombonist Dávur Juul Magnussen dazzled audiences with his solo improvisations in Mancini’s Peter Gunn. She also noted that Christopher Hart, their new principal trumpet, who only graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2016, is simply stunning in not only the powerful, high fanfares of Star Wars but also the poignant solo in Lincoln: The People's House; a real inspiration for the many children and young people who attend these concerts.


Article sponsored by the RSNO.