Minnesota Orchestra's movie music season climaxes with Harry Potter

Daniel Radcliffe in 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'Warner Bros.

December 10, 2016

Orchestras across the country are doing boffo business with performances of live film scores to accompany specially prepared versions of movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Home Alone. The movie-music boom was very much in evidence last night at the Minneapolis Convention Center, as the Minnesota Orchestra presented the first of three performances of John Williams's score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001).

With his scores for Sorcerer's Stone and its first two sequels, Williams — who soundtracked the childhoods of gen-Xers like me with his music for Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. — stepped into the defining fantasy world of the millennial generation and gave it yet another of his indelible melodies: "Hedwig's Theme," a 14-note run that's come to stand for not only Harry's owl but for author J.K. Rowling's entire "wizarding world." (It's the first thing you hear when this year's prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them begins.)

Of course, even if Williams hadn't personally written the music for Harry Potter, his legacy helped to ensure that it would be an orchestral score. It's apt that Williams's films are among the first to be adapted for live orchestral performance: the success of his Star Wars score gave a colossal shove to a genre that had been increasingly experimenting with electronic and rock music. Symphony orchestras have Williams (and George Lucas) to thank for ensuring that the orchestra would retain this place of pride in popular culture.

We were at the Convention Center last night both because Orchestra Hall was in use for Messiah and because the auditorium has more capacity: 3,433 seats (to Orchestra Hall's 2,087), which Harry Potter had no problem filling. The atmosphere was a little looser than at Orchestra Hall — the guy in front of me was eating a basket of chicken fingers while he watched — but while the audience took conductor Nicholas Buc up on his invitation to cheer the heroes and boo the villains, the film and music held them in such rapt attention that for most of the performance, the audience was as quiet as if we were listening to The Unanswered Question.

The Harry Potter films are generally regarded as being fine but not particularly distinguished — there was so little room to make any significant departures from the source material that star Daniel Radcliffe was initially fitted with green contact lenses, until Rowling agreed that the boy could be spared the irritation and the cinematic Harry could be blue-eyed. Still, director Chris Columbus's sturdy film proved more than adequate for the Potter fans who turned out last night.

It's a tribute to the complexity of Rowling's storytelling that some characters with convoluted story arcs inspired mixed boos and cheers. Young Radcliffe, along with costars Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, earned plenty of huzzahs, but there's no question which actor earned the loudest recognition: Alan Rickman, who played the scowling Professor Snape and died in January at the age of 69.

There was also plenty of love, of course for the heroes on stage: the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. Williams's score requires a children's choir, so the Minnesota Boychoir are also sitting in for these performances — literally sitting in, during the portions where they're not required to sing. For those passages, the kids sit on their bleachers and look on in radiant fascination, like the rest of us.

The Minnesota Orchestra's Harry Potter performance will repeat today at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. The orchestra presents the score to It's a Wonderful Life on Dec. 17 and 18.