By LISA GUTIERREZ
The Kansas City Star
But no one sitting in Helzberg Hall last spring had ever watched that famous movie moment accompanied by the Kansas City Symphony.
There it was, that iconic footage playing bigger than life on a huge movie screen behind 70-some musicians on the stage.
“The hills are alive with the sound of music.”
When the words rang out above the big, lush, live sound of violins and flutes and horns and drums it seemed like Julie Andrews herself was right there in that sold-out hall.
That night of homage to Rodgers and Hammerstein films kicked off the orchestra’s new “Screenland at the Symphony” concert series that marries live music to movies.
It continues on Thursday and Friday when the symphony accompanies screenings of “The Wizard of Oz” in its entirety, an MGM-remastered version that marks the movie’s 75th anniversary.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Judy Garland will sing with the Kansas City Symphony.
For the event, the music has been digitally removed from the 1939 classic and the symphony, led by associate conductor Aram Demirjian, will play the score live.
The trick for Demirjian: To make sure the music is synchronized to the action on that big screen. He can’t let the orchestra get ahead of or behind Garland’s singing.
“I would make the analogy that conducting an orchestra to accompany a movie is like being in a car where you’re controlling the steering wheel but someone else has their foot on the accelerator,” says the conductor, who also led the inaugural concerts last year.
“It sounds a little bit like juggling fire sticks, and it is, but it’s incredibly exhilarating to do. And when it’s going well — the performances are going to be great — it’s quite a lot of fun.”
Butch Rigby, founder of Kansas City’s Screenland Theatres, will emcee both showings as he did last year for two concerts that showcased Hitchcock thrillers and Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.
For years the longtime cinema aficionado, who also collects movie soundtracks, thought it would be “phenomenal” to watch a movie with a live orchestra providing the music.
When he pitched his pipe dream to Frank Byrne, the symphony’s executive director found a lot of enthusiasm among his orchestra colleagues.
That excitement, coupled with the advanced acoustics of the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, put every needed piece into place. Here was yet another way for the symphony to attract new fans.
“We realized that we had a new opportunity here, with the incredible sound of the hall and the interest of people coming and experiencing different types of programming with the symphony, that this was a perfect time to test drive this new format,” says Byrne.
The blueprint, in fact, already existed. Orchestras large and small, from Alaska to Maine, are hosting film/concert events using footage from movies ranging from “Fantasia” and “Mark of Zorro” to “Casablanca” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Byrne joined forces with John Goberman, whose New York-based PGM Productions creates and provides this type of programming.
Goberman has said that there is no “magical way” of removing the orchestral sound from films while leaving the songs, sound effects and dialogue untouched. The task is an arduous, digital process that, in some cases, requires reconstructing scores because a lot of original sheet music is long gone. The music for “The Wizard of Oz” event, for example, is a new transcription of the lost score.
“When you see these films you know and love, and then you hear this unbelievable sound of the orchestra rising up, more beautifully than you’ve ever imagined … it’s almost like the music going from one-dimensional to three-dimensional.
“I think it has a deep emotional impact on everyone in the audience.”
That’s true for the conductor, too. Demirjian said he could feel the buzz in the hall at last year’s performances, and he’s ready to take the hot seat again.
As he conducts, he will have two small TV monitors in front of him at the podium. One will show him what is being projected on the big screen behind the musicians. The other will show a ticking stopwatch. The sheet music will have time cues written on it providing his road map.
“So when you reach bar 49, for instance, the clock should be at 1 minute and 52 seconds,” he says. “So then it’s my job basically to time the music so that we hit those corresponding points.
“It’s a little bit of a paradoxical phenomenon because you’ve got voices that are singing on screen and you are accompanying those voices, the same as you would in a live musical, except the singers that you are accompanying can’t hear you.
“So they’re going to do whatever they’re going to do and we, as a 70-plus person ensemble, need to react very quickly, all together.”
For Rigby, who has probably watched thousands of movies in his lifetime, there’s no comparing the grandeur of the symphony’s sound to what comes out of a theater speaker.
“It creates an experience that is almost overwhelming,” says Rigby. “I would call it the equivalent of every single person having their own sound system.
“No movie theater in the world is designed for sound like the performing arts center. It’s sort of like the difference between seeing a picture of the ocean and feeling the ocean lapping up against your back.”
He’s going to need an umbrella, then, for next year’s event.
It’s “Singing in the Rain.”
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