Minnesota Orchestra conjures 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban'
"It's interesting to see how much music affects the experience of seeing a film," says Sarah Hicks, the Minnesota Orchestra's principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. "That, people don't think of so much until they're actually made aware of that music. That's what's exciting for me."
This weekend, the Minnesota Orchestra kicks off its 2018-19 season of films in concert with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Hicks, who has been conducting these concerts for many years, has again curated an impressive season with Grant Meachum, director of Live at Orchestra Hall. The schedule is designed to feature many high-profile films that, Hicks says, "will showcase the orchestra and provide a great musical [experience], not just a cinematic experience."
(Note that although Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is part of the Live at Orchestra Hall series, the concert will take place at the Minneapolis Convention Center.)
John Williams' film scores feature prominently this year with not just the Harry Potter films, but also Star Wars and Jurassic Park.
"There's a lot of John Williams, in general, because he wrote really orchestral scores, and those translate well to the live genre," Hicks says.
Additionally, there's one of the latest Star Trek films, scored by Michael Giacchino, and families will be able to enjoy a live version of Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast during the holiday season.
A decade ago, combining a film presentation with live orchestral music wasn't so easy to achieve. The Minnesota Orchestra offered occasional screenings of classic films with live accompaniment, but it's only in the past five years or so that studios have made more-contemporary releases readily available. This has coincided with a rise in technical capabilities that a few specific companies use for these presentations.
During every rehearsal and performance, Hicks uses a monitor in conjunction with her score. This monitor is constantly streaming all the information needed to pull off one of these shows.
"I have a special version of the film, which has a lot of info on it," she explains. "It has the number of the cue for the music being played. It has a digital countdown, which I reference. I also have in one corner the measure number and the beat number I'm on. I have these things called streamers, which are big lines that move across the screen at certain points to indicate something's happening and I also have punches, which are circular bright flashes of light that come sometimes every measure or every couple of measures."
These cinematic performances, as is the case with the Harry Potter films, can run nonstop for 2½ hours. So stamina is key. There's also the occasional quirk of performing to prerecorded vocals, such as with this season's Beauty and the Beast. The songs are not performed live, but the music will be.
"For most iterations, everything that's happening happens on screen," Hicks says. "Now, there are special instances. I know for Nightmare Before Christmas, sometimes [composer] Danny Elfman will sing the Jack Skellington part live. But those are special performances. They are not normal. So most of the time the vocals are what's on screen."
In these instances, staying on beat is paramount. So Hicks uses a click track.
"For me, especially if it's a score with a vocal element, it helps," she explains. "If it features piano or guitar, a lot of percussion or a drum set, it helps me to have those people listening to what I am listening to so we're exactly on the same page of where things need to lie, where we need to have a certain amount of precision."
Sometimes the choir component of scores can be done either live or on screen, but this is not the case with the Harry Potter films. These scores contractually require all the vocal elements to be done live — just another piece in an already-complicated puzzle that Hicks takes in and performs, as any master conductor would. She loves every film she gets to perform. As they've becoming more and more popular around the world, live screenings have confirmed her belief that they're worthwhile.
"There is great music to be played," she says, "and it's a wonderful way to introduce audiences, because for many people their introduction to the orchestral genre is through film scoring, through soundtracks."
It makes solid marketing sense, too. With a carefully curated selection of movies, there is a variety of opportunity to engage audiences of diverse backgrounds and ages.
"My hope is always that people will come see a film show and get interested in what else the orchestra does and see if there's anything that appeals to them," Hicks says. "As being in that experience in Orchestra Hall will show you, it's a great sonic experience and adds so much to even your favorite films that you think you know so well and touches on the incredible power of live music."
Tickets are already scarce for every performance, but check out the performance calendar for openings.
Minnesota Orchestra's movie screenings
Here are the dates for the Minnesota Orchestra's movie screenings with live music for this season. Click on each title for event info.
Oct. 26-28: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Nov. 24-25: Jurassic Park
Dec. 22: Disney's Beauty and the Beast (animated)
Jan. 3-6: Star Wars: A New Hope
March 29-30: Star Trek: Into Darkness