Think of Christopher James Lees as the happy warden of a beautiful prison.
When he takes the Ovens Auditorium podium Dec. 28 to conduct the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, he’ll have to forget everything he’s learned about personalized interpretation of a score. He and his musicians will be ruled for one hour and 55 minutes by a two-foot-wide electronic contraption, which pulses beams of light to tell them what to do.
Yet as he prepares to lead John Williams’ full score for “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” he’s happy.
“I refer to the click-track as the world’s most inflexible soloist,” says the CSO’s resident conductor. “You’re accompanying a film, and you’re strictly subservient to visual images. You’re looking for perfect synchronicity, that exact marriage of visuals and sound. When you get it….”
“At ‘Back to the Future,’ Belk Theater became the city’s living room. The audience shared a familiar experience with a live orchestra, watching it on a bigger screen than they’d find anywhere else. You heard a thousand people laughing together at jokes they’d forgotten. There was a buzz the whole night – not ambient noise, but excitement.”
The front office shares his enthusiasm. CSO management has served up live film soundtracks for at least seven years but roared ahead full-throttle in 2018-19: Disney’s “Fantasia” in May, with Lees adjusting to Leopold Stokowski’s eccentric choices on the soundtrack, “Back to the Future” in June, “Home Alone” in November, “E.T.” this Friday. Still to come: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” second in its Potter series at Ovens, on March 9, and “Star Wars: A New Hope” April 5-6 at Belk Theater.
“This idea has been wildly successful in virtually every market, a booming source of new revenue,” says CSO president/CEO Mary Deissler. “For ‘Back to the Future,’ the audience was over three-quarters new attendees. At ‘Home Alone,’ 60 percent were new. When we look at age demographics, we see that 60 percent are 50 or under, with 34 percent 40 and under. What we’re seeing is multi-generational.”
Deissler says orchestras have moved away from the belief that populist programs create fans who cross over to mainstream classical concerts. The CSO now wants to satisfy fans with whatever music the orchestra can play well.
“Mahler’s First Symphony and ‘Home Alone’ are each valid,” she says. “We shouldn’t expect to force some kind of conversion. If our audience base grows by 10,000 attendees in a year who’d never come to Mahler, that’s good for the symphony.”
So how does this gig work?
A technician extracts the underscore from a soundtrack, leaving in songs and dialogue. Occasionally, a prelude or postlude gets added to flesh out the score, but musicians usually get pages with the same cues a Los Angeles orchestra used in the recording studio. Lush orchestral sequences may alternate with brief brass interjections or bursts from the strings.
Lees watches the movie, often more than once and sometimes without the score, to understand how sound reinforces imagery. He learns the score as he would with any unfamiliar piece.
Then he gets a conducting package with a click-track, a metronome beat that sounds in his ears as a series of vertical bars pass across a screen in front of him. Red, yellow and green pulses alert him to stop and start the orchestra. With “Back to the Future,” he saw indicators that were purple, light and dark brown and orange to correspond with his color-coded score. He can adjust for balance and unity but not tempo or, in many cases, dynamics.
“The degree of synchronicity should be hyperclear,” he says. “The experience has to be in sync to the last decimal point. Mozart said the most difficult thing (for a conductor) to decide is tempo. When that’s been decided for you, you can focus on other things.
“If you play this music at exactly the tempo of the original, the production sets you up to succeed. You see the DeLorean speeding up in ‘Back to the Future,’ you feel the climax coming, and it all works.”
Opportunities remain limitless. Lees could conduct a “West Side Story,” the first movie he saw with a live orchestra when he lived in Detroit. (He wondered what it must be like to accompany singers who’d died years before.)
Deissler contemplates a classic film series that could include “Casablanca,” “North by Northwest” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She’s impressed by Danny Elfman’s scores for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Edward Scissorhands.”
As Lees points out, classical music has permeated Hollywood since the advent of sound in 1927. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and other Oscar-winners from the early years all had classical training in Europe. Today, John Williams and Philip Glass stay busy not only with film soundtracks but with classical commissions. Nine composers in the symphony’s 2018-19 Classical Season have done movie scores.
“Film writing can be quite virtuosic,” says Lees. “We believe in it as much as anything we play.”
“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”
WHEN: Dec. 28 at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd.
TICKETS: $19-$99, with prices fluctuating according to demand. One ticket-buyer will receive a page from the “E.T.” score with the composer’s autograph.
DETAILS: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.