The lights in the concert hall dim. On a large screen behind the orchestra, the titles of the movie that started the summer blockbuster era of 1975 appear. Then the onstage orchestra enters with a suddenly-familiar sound of menace. The film is Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the music is by John Williams, and audiences from Boston to Chicago to London will have a chance to experience it in a sensational new way starting May 2017.

John Williams © Wikimedia Commons
John Williams
© Wikimedia Commons

Every week around the globe concert goers can watch a favorite movie with its musical score sounding as spellbinding as its images. Rather than hear the original music on the soundtrack, the audience hears a live orchestra play it in synch with the film. The market for such evenings has “exploded,” in the words of one of the leading producers, Steve Linder of Film Concerts Live. These concerts have the hallmarks of a new hybrid art.

The genre “obviously is hitting some kind of positive nerve with orchestras and audiences,” Linder said recently from his office in Los Angeles. Whereas 10 years ago only a smattering of orchestras were performing live scores with films, now dozens are doing it – and with full length features, not just brief clips from a variety of films.

Of course, the history of films with live music goes back to the silent era. But as films move into concert halls with extraordinary sound, they’ve opened up a new era for classical orchestras as well as a new category of non-classical concert.

“We have gotten to a point where we experience a lot of movies alone” on TV or various devices, “but movies originally were communal,” said Jamie Richardson, Linder’s fellow Film Concerts Live producer. As groups gather in 2,000-seat concert halls or places like the Hollywood Bowl, which holds 17,500, Richardson continues, “It completely changes the feeling you get when you watch the film.”

For an orchestra, it can mean a welcome sellout engagement. For attendees, it’s an electrifying event. For film studios, it’s a way to repurpose their assets. And for conductors and composers, it’s a chance for their work to move front and center, rather than remain subservient to the action on screen.

Jaws looks to repeat the success that orchestras have had with films as diverse as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Casablanca and West Side Story. Said John Williams: “It’s thrilling for both Steven and me to realize that this unique film still captures the imagination of viewers after so many years, and that audiences now can enjoy the movie live in concert, accompanied by a great orchestra. This is the greatest possible reward for the joyous and fun-filled task of making it.”

The concert format originated with producer John Goberman and the 1938 Russian epic Alexander Nevsky; the score by Sergei Prokofiev was composed in close collaboration with filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. According to Goberman, as great as the film was, the sound of the score on film was so poor that Prokofiev later created a cantata so people could actually hear what he had composed.

In 1987 Goberman took the orchestration, and had it fashioned into a score that a live orchestra could play. Then, with the film stripped of its music, he presented it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by André Previn, playing the music live.

The mechanics of putting on such a show are labor-intensive and lengthy, especially with older films. “For a lot of these great films like Casablanca or the Wizard of Oz, the music was thrown away – it was buried under the Hollywood freeway somewhere,” said Goberman. How to reconstruct it? “You have a genius who either has a conductor’s score or a very good ear.” In the case of the Wizard of Oz, arranger/conductor John Wilson built a complete score by listening to the movie and notating everything.

Even when you have a score, many older films were created “before separated audio tracks were the norm,” said Brian Grohl, manager of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. “Then you have to go electronically,” to try to separate all the elements and specifically to remove the orchestral soundtrack.

In recent years that job has been made easier with the invention of software called Xtracks, said Grohl. “It teaches itself to recognize the orchestral part and electronically take that out, and leave the sound effects and dialogue on there, so you have as clean as possible tape. You haven’t degraded quality or clarity of dialogue or sound effects.”

According to Richardson, a company requires four to six months to prepare a film for a concert night, “from the moment we sign our license and we get the physical film elements from the studio, all of the music preparation & working with the composer…to preparing the conductor files, the cued files, to developing our marketing materials.”

Once this preparation is done, the company follows through with the venue and orchestra. “The one thing we don’t want to do is simply ship materials off and say good luck,” said Richardson. The company provides a projector and technical crew to make sure everything goes smoothly.

For the orchestra and conductor the key is synchronizing to the action, not interpreting the music. The conductor relies on visual cues: he watches the film on a small screen at the podium. Originally, as Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart explained, “half of the screen is the film and a sweep second hand clock is on the other side, and you basically cue yourself to the different parts of the film.....it’s the definition of watching the clock. There is no wriggle room.”

Keith Lockhart © Winslow Townson
Keith Lockhart
© Winslow Townson

Eventually, what’s known as streamers and punches came to be used – a system already used for the original scoring of more recent films. A vertical line runs as a warning along the edge of the frames, followed by a white circle as a cue to keep the conductor in synch. For audio cues, many orchestras use click tracks, a digital metronome that is heard by the musicians and sometimes by the conductor as well. “It’s just as important to synchronize as to make music,” says conductor and composer David Newman, who, like Lockhart, has done many of these. Newman noted that rehearsals can be “like dragging a truck up the hill.” Not every player is experienced using a click track or enjoys the dynamic of performing film score. Said Lockhart: “Mentally it’s really exhausting;” it demands “a laser-like focus.” He added, “these are also big study projects - typically 400 or 500 pages of music.”

The actual experience of playing a film concert , however, can be incredibly rewarding. According to Newman, it’s “a magical communal experience. And it brings in people who have never been to a concert before.  It makes concerts less intimidating.”   

Concert managers are equally enthusiastic. “There’s an exciting element where everyone – even conductor and musicians – are on the same ride, said Brian Grohl. “They’re so engrossed in the experience! It becomes an ineffable moment of enthusiasm.”

The feedback following a film presentation can be magical too. After a performance of Fantasia with an Italian orchestra that had never done a film concert, one player told conductor Lockhart, “That was so fun! It was like a video game for conductor and orchestra!”

In Philadelphia, where he produced E.T., Steve Linder was approached by an usher who “thought it was the best thing that ever came to Verizon Hall and all the patrons were saying great things. And my feeling is, if you’ve reached the usher staff you’ve hit a home run.”

Then there was the Nashville production of Home Alone. As everyone was leaving, Jamie Richardson noticed a boy about 4 or 5 years old walking with his family who was “gesticulating; he was playing air violin, mimicking what he had seen for two hours onstage. I suddenly realized that could have the inspiring moment for him going to music school and becoming the next Gil Shaham.”