Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Pottering Around at the Symphony

On multiple occasions, I've written about the special movie screenings at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, where a film is presented with the score played live by the orchestra. John Williams is the composer most often highlighted in these screenings (as most recently, with Raiders of the Lost Ark). That continued this past weekend with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The first Harry Potter film is now 15 years old, and plays quite differently today. This isn't to say it aged badly, though. On the contrary, most of the visuals outside of the troll attack hold up remarkably well. I think this is in part because such a distinct look and feel was established right from the beginning, and then faithfully maintained throughout the seven subsequent films. Having recently visited Universal Studios Orlando, for example, I can attest that things like Diagon Alley, Gringotts Bank, and the Hogwarts Express look in this movie exactly like what you can go see for yourself at the theme park.

No, the movie just plays differently in retrospect. We now know just how much the filmmakers caught lightning in a bottle casting all these young children for these roles. There was no telling how perfect Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint would prove to be for the main characters (along with all the other young performers filling out the rest of the parts). There was no knowing how moving the character of Snape would be, as we didn't know the end of his story back in 2001. (Plus now there's extra poignancy, in the death of Alan Rickman.) What seems like an inevitable success today could hardly have been guaranteed at the time. (Compare to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which still paved the way financially for a series, but was a far less creatively effective movie than The Sorcerer's Stone.)

One element that almost certainly was a guaranteed success at the time, though, was the score by John Williams. He may have hit a creative peak in the late 70s and early 80s, but was still producing iconic work long after. Harry Potter came just a couple years before he scaled back his workload; after Sorcerer's Stone and the next two Harry Potter films, he stopped working for anyone not making a Star Wars movie or named Steven Spielberg.

The Harry Potter theme (officially, "Hedwig's Theme") is as memorable and perfectly suited to its film as anything Williams ever wrote. A wondrous, child-like melody for celeste, it instantly evokes the sense of magic the movies demands. Watching a huge orchestra give way to a solo performer for this theme added a compelling visual component to the moving audio. And the theme proves emotionally flexible when it's transferred to other instruments throughout the score. The Harry Potter music is a bit more reliant on two or three major melodies than some of Williams' work, but he gets maximum mileage out of these themes by exploring how different sections of the orchestra alter the emotional perception of the music.

The Sorcerer's Stone score is at once so quintessentially John Williams that you'd never mistake it, and a bit of a departure for the composer. For anyone who ever paid attention to the music of Harry Potter, Star Wars, Superman, or Indiana Jones, I surely don't need to describe the similarities. The differences, though, are more subtle. Trumpets and trombones are far less active in this score than in most of Williams' work; French horns carry a great deal of the score. Traditional brass is instead used in an apparent strategy to make things seem "extra magical" in a world where everything is magical to some extent. Whenever an extra sense of wonder (or jeopardy) is required, there come the louder, brighter horns.

The violins are also working at a much more frenetic pace than Williams typically employs. While strings always play a major role in any of his scores, the violins of Harry Potter are often whirling up and down the scales like a dervish. When listening to the score, it sounds effortless and fluid. But when actually watching the performers, you see fingers furiously dancing along the fingerboards.

The score for The Sorcerer's Stone also makes extensive enough (and prominent enough) use of choir to justify having one for this Colorado Symphony Orchestra performance. Where choir has sometimes been pre-recorded (or absent) from some of the film score performances I've previously attended, this performance included an all-female choir of some 40 voices. More than once throughout the movie, their presence was that last element that really boosted the emotion in performances from young actors who had not yet mastered their craft.

Ordinarily, I conclude these reviews of CSO film concerts by urging readers to look for more of them in the future. In this case, if you're a Harry Potter fan, I can be more specific in my recommendation. It appears the Colorado Symphony Orchestra intends to work their way through the entire series in the years to come -- or at least, through the John Williams scored movies. The Chamber of Secrets and The Prisoner of Azkaban are already on the schedule for mid-2017 and early 2018, respectively. (The latter movie in particular contains some fantastic music.)

Mischief managed.

No comments: