Music preview: 'The Wizard of Oz' at Heinz Hall, powered by the Pittsburgh Symphony

Symphonies tackle the unique challenges of film concerts, with the PSO accompanying 'Oz' in five big-screen showings


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Chances are you have never heard of Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann or Herbert Stothart.

But if you are of a certain age -- and even if you aren't -- you have probably heard them, over and over again, their lush, romantic music burned into your brain thanks to repeated viewings of the movies they scored: "Casablanca," "North by Northwest" and "The Wizard of Oz."

These classically trained composers toiled mostly behind the scenes during Hollywood's Golden Age, but they're getting new life and recognition today, out front and center stage at concert halls from Fort Wayne to Fresno to Philadelphia and now, Pittsburgh.

YouTube video: Orchestras mixing music, movies

Orchestras like the Houston Symphony have taken to performing the scores of cherished musicals while the movie is playing. The PSO's PNC Pops will perform the music from "The Wizard of Oz" next weekend at Heinz Hall. (3/10/2013)

Beginning Thursday and running through next Sunday, Heinz Hall, a former movie palace built in the 1920s, will return to its roots with five big screen showings of "The Wizard of Oz" -- while the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra plays Stothart's soundtrack live, along with "Over the Rainbow" and other classic songs by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg.

Coincidentally, this concert comes only a few days after an "Oz" prequel -- "Oz the Great and Powerful" opened in theaters nationwide.

Still, a nagging question remains: What if the orchestra is off pitch when Judy Garland opens her mouth to sing?

"That is not going to happen," said Pittsburgh Symphony resident conductor Lawrence Loh, who has been preparing carefully for this PNC Pops concert by watching a DVD of the film with a special analog clock on the screen -- which will be out of view of the audience -- to ensure that music is precisely synchronized to the action.

"It's a very unique symphonic situation, not the sort of concert we do every day," he acknowledged.

"Usually, when you're accompanying a singer, there's a natural give and take. Here, there's just give. But Judy Garland sings 'Over the Rainbow' the same way every time, so that's a good thing," he laughed, adding that "the whole Munchkin sequence is pretty difficult. There are lots of tempo changes and voices that pop out of nowhere."

PNC Pops' "The Wizard of Oz"

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m Sunday.

Tickets: $20 to $98; 412-392-4900 or 1-800-743-8560.

Classical musicians might loathe playing easy-listening pops music, but this is a far more challenging task than your average run-through of a Strauss waltz. "Wizard," at 101 minutes, will require real stamina, although there are plenty of sections with no music, and it has one intermission.

"It obviously isn't the highest form of our art," acknowledged Jeffrey Turner, principal bassist for the symphony. The difficulties are mostly artistic, he noted -- "there isn't 'room' to adjust to Heinz Hall's acoustics, and there is a vastly reduced need for artistic decision making" because of the constraints imposed by the film.

Nonetheless, Mr. Turner started his career playing scores live to classic silent films at the Eastman-Dryden Orchestra in Rochester and "I had a wonderful experience learning to play in a way that works in that setting."

The film concert is a relatively new invention -- films are stripped of the music, the dialogue remains, and packaged in such a way to allow an orchestra to stay up to pace with the unfolding plot, said John Goberman, a longtime music and television producer who first came up with the concept.

His first attempt, "Alexander Nevsky," in 1987, with Andre Previn conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was a great success, said Mr. Goberman, who also created the "Live From Lincoln Center" programs on PBS. With music by Sergei Prokofiev, "it's the greatest film score ever written, in my opinion," he said.

It wasn't easy -- not only because he had to negotiate film rights from the studios, but because very few manuscripts of classic movie scores existed, he said.

"Max Steiner's 'Casablanca' score is probably buried under the Hollywood freeway somewhere," he said, only half-joking.

Instead, Mr. Goberman hired skilled music arrangers who were able to reconstruct the lost scores by watching a film over and over again. They "were able to listen and say, OK, we need two oboes over here and a clarinet over there," he said.

Since 2005, when his version of "Wizard" became available, dozens of orchestras have begun putting on film concerts, bringing in whole new audiences who might otherwise not want to sit through Mahler's Symphony No. 3, which clocks in at nearly two hours.

This isn't the first time the Pittsburgh Symphony has tackled a film concert, either, and with "West Side Story" on the schedule for the 2013-14 season, it won't be the last, said Robert Moir, the symphony's senior vice president for artistic planning. The Philadelphia Orchestra tackled it last fall, in a performance that was "luscious and trenchant," according to one reviewer in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

With music composed by Leonard Bernstein, "it's a hard score, in a jazzy idiom, and virtuosically written for players with fantastic chops," Mr. Moir said. "It challenges the orchestra in ways that very few pieces do."

As far back as 1994, the symphony performed "Nevsky." John Williams was here in 2011 to play his scores along with film excerpts from "Indiana Jones" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." "A Night at the Oscars," a compilation of award-winning films and their scores, was performed in 2009, Mr. Moir said.

Mr. Goberman put together the "Oscars" package and several other compilations, along with a full-length version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," and, early this month, he was in London overseeing the debut film concert of "Singin' in the Rain," played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall.

Some movies have great music that nonetheless doesn't lend itself well to film concerts. "On the Waterfront," for example, with a Bernstein score "won't work because there's not enough music in the movie -- just 30 minutes in all," Mr. Goberman said.

Bernstein, at least, could cross over into film and back into the symphony hall with ease, a feat few other Hollywood composers were able to accomplish. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was an exception -- he was held in high esteem by classical musicians, with his violin concerto and an opera recorded and played long after his death, noted Jeanine Basinger, a film historian at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She has written numerous books on Hollywood's Golden Age.

In Hollywood's heyday, movie scores "were designed to complement, enhance, to comment and elevate but never to dominate or intrude," Ms. Basinger said. Still Steiner, who received raves for his score of 1935's "King Kong," could grate with his occasionally sugary, sentimental music -- including such Bette Davis tearjerkers as "Now, Voyager" and "Dark Victory" -- and some might argue that Herrmann's music during the shower scene of "Psycho" was noticeable, to put it mildly.

But they worked hard, churning out music like sausage after the film was completed, a grueling task: the composer watched the finished film with a timing device, wrote music to fit different sections and then led the orchestra through it, with frequent do-overs if the music didn't match the frame, added Barry Paris, film critic emeritus for the Post-Gazette and author of several acclaimed books about film stars.

Steiner nearly had a nervous breakdown composing the "Gone With the Wind" score, harried and harassed by the movie's amphetamine-popping producer David O. Selznick, but that music only cemented his reputation, whereas the composer for "Wizard," Stothart, was generally considered run-of-the-mill.

Despite the massive technical advances that make today's big movies such as "Lord of the Rings"almost as ravishing a musical experience in your local cineplex as those performed live, it looks as if film concerts are settling in for a long run.

"What I think is interesting, for me as a film historian, is that we've almost returned to the days of the silent cinema, where you had an orchestra playing the music in your presence," Ms. Basinger said. "Now, when everything is recorded, suddenly we're making a return to something human and live and present in the room."

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1949; on Twitter at MackenziePG. First Published March 10, 2013 5:00 AM


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