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BBC Music Magazine

BBC Music Magazine
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February 21, 2018

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Films with live orchestra

A trip to the concert hall to watch a classic

film accompanied by a live symphony

orchestra is becoming increasingly

popular, says

Michael Beek, who explores

the magic behind the experience
Lights, conductor, action!

he lights go down in the concert hall,

where a sea of expectant faces is lit

by a vast flickering cinema screen. It

hangs in the air, seemingly floating
above the orchestra, whose own faces are lit by
the lights on their music stands. The familiar
sight of the 20th Century Fox logo fills the
screen, its searchlights waving as the down
beat of Alfred Newman’s equally familiar
musical fanfare is struck from the orchestra by the conductor. The audience cheers and claps; the atmosphere is electric, and then a hush descends. This is film with live music.
The last few years have seen a growing trend,
as halls and arenas around the world have begun
to present blockbuster films with the added
dimension of a live orchestra. Though it’s not a
new concept – in fact, it’s one of the oldest if you
glance back to the silent era – the experience for

modern audiences is both immersive

and unusual. It’s what Oscar-winning

composer Hans Zimmer describes to
me as ‘an extraordinary treat’.

Zimmer is perhaps the most

influential composer working in film

today, having written the music

for some of cinema’s biggest

hits, including Gladiator, The

Lion King, Interstellar


most recently Christopher
Nolan’s Dunkirk. Last year he took a break from the ‘day job’, hitting the road on his own blockbusting concert tour; and while this wasn’t about live scores exactly, it offered the composer (and musician) the opportunity to see for himself the appetite there is right now for live film music. Was he surprised at its success? ‘A little,’ he admits. ‘The first thing I said to (concert promoter) Harvey Goldsmith was “do you think anyone will come?”’ Come they did, and in their thousands, as Zimmer and his hand-picked ensemble played to packed arenas across the globe. But playing a Zimmer score live in concert is no easy feat.
‘I’ve written so many things that are not
easy to pull off in front of a live audience,’ he
explains, ‘because I use odd line-ups. I love
the line-up of 28 cellos and eight basses only.
It’s hard to get that in your normal symphony
orchestra, plus the brass section is going to be
really cross with you because there’s nothing for
them to play. I remember an orchestra taking

Pirates of the Caribbean

out to do live and I said
“you’d better book two complete French horn
sections, because they need to take a break –
their lips will literally start bleeding!” When we
originally recorded the movie, we did it over a

six-day period.’
Playing film scores live is not just a feat of
endurance for the musicians – the conductor
also has a huge job to take on. Ben Palmer
has presided over a number of live film score
presentations in recent years, from the silents
and The Snowman to golden-age classics such
as Casablanca and Psycho. In January, he
conducted a screening of Steven Spielberg’s

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

at the Royal Festival
Hall, and later this year he embarks on a

European tour of Spielberg’s

Jaws and Raiders of

the Lost Ark
with the Czech National Symphony.
Each features original scores by composer John
Williams, every note of which Palmer will pore
over in preparation for the performances; and
it’s not just the music he learns, it’s the intricate
relationship it has to the film.
‘Essentially the most important thing from my
point of view about the mechanics of it, if you
like, is how I stay in touch with the film,’ Palmer
says. ‘Doing a silent film requires a pretty
astonishing amount of preparation – Chaplin’s
Gold Rush is 88 minutes and it probably took me
three and a half months to learn. Those things
can be really hard, and it’s precarious, but if
you’re well prepared it’s really fun.’

For films like

Psycho or Jaws, Palmer’s task
isn’t much different, though unlike a silent film
they come with dialogue and sound effects tracks that are played simultaneously with the music. Synchronicity, speed and rhythm are still key, however, and remain a specific challenge, as he explains. ‘To fit with the film, you have to do some quite amazing things, and you have to be in the right place, so that it just feels completely natural for the audience. The closest thing you can get to directing film scores in the classical world is conducting ballet. There’s no point having a beautifully played Tchaikovsky Nutcracker if it’s too slow or too fast, or doesn’t
give enough space for the dancers; and it’s exactly

the same with a live film adaptation.’
Studying and conducting scores by the likes
of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams has
only cemented Palmer’s respect and admiration
for them and their art. ‘It is often there where
the real craft of the composer shows through,’ he
explains, ‘because writing a memorable melody
is fine, but underscoring physical movement in
a way that still has an emotional thought behind
it – that is the literal genius of the music.’
For Hans Zimmer it’s all about the shared
experience. He recalls a one-off screening and

performance of

Interstellar at the Royal Albert
Hall in 2015: ‘I was very aware, really concerned,
that it would be enhancing the experience people
already had. I mean there is something great
about a communal experience – as opposed
to a family sitting on the couch – and there’s
something great about having people who really
play for you. Looking the audience in the eye is
very different, and somehow the music becomes
something different as well. It’s as if the audience
completes it. You’re sort of in it together.’THE MARY ROSE TRUST, GETTY
Screen time:

(above) Psycho

at London's


(right) composer

Hans Zimmer;


Ben PalmerSymphonic Brando:

David Newman conducts

the score to

On the

Waterfront in New York

To fit with the

film you have to

do some amazing

things so that it

feels completely

natural for

the audience

The composer will attempt to do the same

again in May as

Planet Earth II

takes to the stage
at the Royal Albert Hall, a concert that sees
highlights from the BBC nature series projected
on the big screen with live music by Zimmer and
co-composers Jacob Shea and David Fleming.
He is quick to heap praise on the pair, telling me
‘they write with such grace and beauty’; and he’s
excited at the prospect of presenting their music
live with the big screen. ‘That subject matter
lends itself tremendously to music, and so for it
to go to the Albert Hall is a great honour for us.
Imagine having those images so vast and huge,
and that clear and beautiful. So get away from
your TV for a moment and experience it!’

Zimmer’s sentiment is echoed by Jamie
Richardson and Steven Linder, founders of
Film Concerts Live!, which presents live cinema
events around the world. They also see such
events as an opportunity for rediscovery. ‘In an
age when many of us watch films alone on smart
phones, tablets or laptop computers, being able
to share the movie-going experience with 2,000
or more fellow fans enhances the enjoyment
exponentially,’ says Richardson. ‘The energy
in a concert hall is palpable, and for many
people, it’s like watching a favourite film for

the first time.’

So for the paying crowd it seems

there’s a mixture of curiosity and a

desire to watch a film they love in a

whole new way. Indeed, the concert

hall setting even permits audience behaviour
not usually seen or heard in the cinema, as Ben
Palmer never fails to notice from the conductor’s
podium: ‘It can be really hard to concentrate
actually, while behind you the audience is
crying with laughter. Last night I was doing

Snowman and after “Walking in the Air”, with a
lovely treble singing, the audience just burst into
applause. It’s amazing, and I imagine it’ll be the
same in E.T. when the bike takes off.’
The audience for a live film score is perhaps,
then, witness to a great spectacle, a feat of
endurance and synchronicity. Tradition and
technology converge as the orchestra recreates,
in real time, music that was originally recorded
over a number of days, maybe even weeks, and
with the luxury of multiple takes. Here they
perform it straight through, hitting integral
beats of physical action, submitting to sudden
and necessary changes in tempo, while always
providing a key emotional subtext. This happens
almost entirely unnoticed as the audience quickly
gets swept up in the story unfolding on screen. But
that’s the ultimate role of the film score, isn’t it – to
be subservient to the film and subconsciously to
feed, move and thrill the viewer.
For Hans Zimmer, the concerts play an even
more important role in the long term: ‘I’m just
grateful and happy that audiences are coming
to see orchestras. I think it’s important that we
carry on figuring out how to keep orchestral

music relevant, and if it’s

Planet Earth

or Blue
Planet that can not only do something about
making us ecologically more conscious, but
delight us enough that it provides a foundation
for musicians to really shine, then that’s great.’

Taking the stage:

Hans Zimmer (right) performs with

singer Pharrell Williams in 2017

Suspenseful: James Stewart and Kim

Novak star in Vertigo, to be shown with

a live orchestra in Liverpool on 24 May

Films with live orchestra

Big screen sounds

Live film events in 2018

Raiders of the Lost Ark

Czech National Symphony

Orchestra/Ben Palmer

5 April

Colston Hall, Bristol

21 September Symphony

Hall, Birmingham


Czech NSO/Ben Palmer

6 April

Bridgewater Hall,


7 April


Hall, Liverpool

8 April

York Barbican

10 April Cliffs Pavillion,


11 April Symphony Hall, B’ham

12 April

Brighton Dome

13 April

The Anvil, Basingstoke

14 April Colston Hall, Bristol

Harry Potter and the

Chamber of Secrets

BBC Concert Orchestra/

Justin Freer

27-29 April Royal Albert

Hall, London

2001: A Space Odyssey


André de Ridder

28 April

Royal Festival

Hall, London

Planet Earth II

BBC Concert Orchestra/

Jessica Cottis

13 May

Royal Albert Hall


RLPO/Anthony Gabriele

24 May

Philharmonic Hall, L’pool

Star Trek/Star Trek Beyond

Royal Philharmonic Concert

Orchestra/Ernst Van Tiel

2 & 3 June Royal Albert Hall

Close Encounters of

the Third Kind

RPCO/Ernst Van Tiel

14 June Royal Albert Hall

The English Patient

21st Century Symphony

Orch/Ludwig Wicki

18 October

Royal Albert Hall

Home Alone



22 December

Royal Albert Hall

BBC Music Magazine

PDF file: MusicUK_320_movie.pdf


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