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Movie magic: Philadelphia Orchestra series to begin at SPAC

Movie magic: Philadelphia Orchestra series to begin at SPAC

Music to 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,' 'City Lights' and 'Up' will be played
Movie magic: Philadelphia Orchestra series to begin at SPAC
Movie night with the Philadelphia Orchestra begins Saturday with "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."
Photographer: photo provided

Most of us go to the movies and aren’t aware of the impact the music has on the film.

Do we even notice? On Saturday, it’s your chance to find out when the Philadelphia Orchestra will play while you watch “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” (2002).

“Being exposed to great music . . . that’s important to me,” said Elizabeth Sobol, Saratoga Performing Arts Center executive director. “Numerous people have told me they didn’t realize how powerful a film’s music was.”

Just consider how many times regular orchestra concerts have featured the music from “Star Wars,” which John Williams composed, or a suite from “On the Waterfront,” which Leonard Bernstein wrote, or how many times segments of these scores turn up in television advertisements or provide background for scenes in other movies. 

“Classical music is ubiquitous in our sonic landscape. It’s pretty cool,” Sobol said. 

That’s why choosing which film to present during the orchestra’s residency, which this year includes three films, follows a strict protocol: it must have a great score that is “rich and wonderful”; it must be a blockbuster movie (“I stood spellbound at “E.T.”); and  must include something for kids or be an art film, such as last year’s “The Red Violin,” which was having its 20th anniversary and was “a huge milestone.”

But the choice to even have film didn’t begin until SPAC’s 2011 season when “Casablanca” was shown. Other venues then were also starting to consider film.

“People don’t understand the impact music has on the film and them,” Sobol said. “There’s now a recognition that film scores can be great music.”

The combination of a live orchestra and film has proved to be a huge attraction. At SPAC that means an audience of up to 7,000 people, many of them first-timers hearing the Philadelphia and even some the first time at SPAC.

“I’m always asking myself how do we create an exciting experience to bring new people through the doors,” Sobol said. “These films heighten the power of classical music and let people have that unique experience.”

And maybe inspire them to take a chance and come back for a regular concert. Even the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic are using films during their regular seasons.  

But renting the films is something else. Agencies devoted to these ventures must be negotiated with. They have the film, the scores and music parts; they dictate the fees, what screens must be used, what techies must be hired, and even suggest what conductor will conduct. 

For “Harry Potter,” a special 40-foot LED screen had to be rented, which Sobol said would be “spectacular” for its clarity and image resolution. The next film, Disney’s “Up” (2009) for Aug. 10 will use a regular screen as will Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” for Aug. 14. The Philadelphia Orchestra had to approve the conductors, which will include sequentially Justin Freer, Constantine Kitsopoulos, and Kensho Watanabe, the PO assistant conductor.

But conducting a live orchestra with a film requires a learning curve. Conductors have a small screen next to their conducting desk that shows the film. They and sometimes the musicians each wear an audio device in their ears called a click track. 

“The score has metronome markings that indicate tempo based on beats per bar,” Watanabe said. “The click track will mark every beat according to that metronome marking.”

For a complicated score like Williams’ “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” there are a series of what the industry calls punches and streamers. The punches are translucent circles that indicate downbeats and the streamers are green or yellow vertical lines that go from left to right that indicate a new section of the film, such as a love scene to an argument.

Watanabe won’t have these because the technology did not exist when the Chaplin film of 1931 was made. Instead, he’ll be more like an accompanist, such as the pianists in a silent movie theater, to make sure the music fits at the appropriate key moment.

“I got the score and am looking at the film to understand those key moments,” Watanabe said. “It’s not unlike doing a ballet or opera.”

While Williams and Michael Giacchino, who composed “Up,” wrote complex scores, Chaplin hummed his tunes, which Arthur Johnston wrote down and Alfred Newman orchestrated. Only the song for the blind flower girl was by Jose Padilla, which occurs like a Wagnerian leit-motif whenever she appears. This is Watanabe’s first time professionally conducting with a film.

“I’ll get one or two rehearsals,” he said. “I hope it all happens naturally. I’m having fun.”


Movie night with the Philadelphia Orchestra

WHEN: 8 p.m. Aug.3 (“Harry Potter…”), Aug. 10 (“Up), Aug. 14 (“City Lights”)
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
HOW MUCH: $107-$37 ($100-$30); $34 ($29), lawn 
MORE INFO: 518 584-9330; www.spac.org

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