For the past few years the Toronto Symphony have given us opportunities to see well-known movies with live orchestral accompaniment:
I don’t pretend to understand how all the necessary technical challenges are surmounted to make these possible. The dialogue appears to be on a different track from the music, with the result that we still get Anthony Perkins or Kim Novak or Jimmy Stewart speaking their lines, whether we have the old Bernard Herrmann soundtrack that was recorded and imprinted onto those films, or a live performance by the Toronto Symphony in the 21st century. Vertigo and Psycho have scores that are 100% extra-diegetic: meaning that the music is created outside the world of the story. While there’s a moment in Vertigo when Scottie is cracking up after the apparent death of his beloved when he’s listening to Mozart to calm his soul, and so some music is from the same world as the dialogue, namely, within the film’s diegesis, but it’s on a phonograph record, and so doesn’t shatter our reality. We can watch those stories unfold whether the music is the same sound we’ve always heard or a live performance.
In Back to the Future it gets a bit harder because we’re watching Michael J Fox sing & play “Johnny B Goode” live at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance. But this would only pose a technical challenge if the scene contained Fox’s guitar & vocals as well as live orchestra. But because there’s no other music at that moment we’re content to listen to music from the same place as the dialogue, in much the same way as that vinyl recording of Mozart in Vertigo. In the performance of Howard Shore’s The Fellowship of the Ring there was a much higher level of complexity, as we heard a soloist singing a song, and a chorus as well, adding to what the orchestra did. Even so, these too were extra-diegetic, and not in any way penetrating the world of the film.
That colossal preamble is meant to explain the different challenges posed by the film I saw tonight, namely The Wizard of Oz. First and foremost, is the fact that it’s a classic film musical, which means that the songs had to be left more or less un-touched, because you can’t replace Judy Garland or Ray Bolger or Bert Lahr. As a result we were in the presence of something reminding me a bit of Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable, an album of songs where she sang duets with her deceased father Nat King Cole.
Emil de Cou conducted the Toronto Symphony in the virtual ensemble across two different centuries, including their concertmaster Jonathan Crow, playing along with Garland and Bolger and Lahr et al. What I saw tonight was surely one of the most difficult and thankless jobs I can imagine, speaking as an accompanist. There are times when singers are hard to follow. But usually when one is attempting to stay with a singer or an ensemble, they are making adjustments, trying to stay with you and adjusting as much as possible. In this case, we were watching the TSO led by de Cou, seeking to synchronize with a performance that was fixed long ago and could not in any way respond or adjust. When it was a vocal solo it was amazing stuff. For these solos, such as “Over the Rainbow” or “If I were the King of the Forest”, I believe the track was at least put through an equalizer if not actually edited so that we heard mostly voice coming from the film, while the orchestra gave us the accompaniment, and de Cou did his best to synchronize the big orchestra.
This became an almost impossible task with the big choral numbers, thinking especially of the songs with the Munchkins such as “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” that pose a huge challenge for the synchronization. And so of course in places the accompaniment and the vocals were out of synch. But I’m hugely sympathetic because I can see what a difficult task this is. I don’t think anyone minded, indeed it calls attention to something that’s easy to forget: that the orchestral music is being created live. The virtual aspect was overshadowed by the live-ness of the creation, rather than undermined.
When you know every line of the film –and I know I’m not the only one in this category—options open up. For the last half-hour of the film, it seemed as though the orchestra was often on the edge of completely drowning out the dialogue. But who cares, if we know every word? We experienced something like being deeply immersed in the film. We had the film projected on a big screen, which is a novelty for those of us who grew up watching it at home on TV. But the big thing was simply hearing all the details in the score. I never realized how often a theme or melody from earlier in the film comes back as a leit-motiv. That’s all much clearer when the score is played so powerfully.
Another challenge was the occasional wordless chorus (a trope you can find in Debussy’s 3rd Nocturne for orchestra or in Neptune in Holst’s The Planets suite although it appeared as early as in Rigoletto, which is currently on stage in Toronto; and we still hear such choruses in the film-scores of Danny Elfman). They solved the problem by the choice to use a synth player on his laptop. Did anyone notice? It wasn’t a problem for me that’s for sure.
It was a very full night for the orchestra. While the playing is rarely virtuosic in nature –although there are a slew of borrowings from the classical repertoire, for instance the chunk of Night on Bald Mountain in the big confrontation scene with the Witch—it seems to be a full night’s work. Crow sounded wonderful in his solos.
The TSO perform it again Sunday afternoon. See/hear it if you can.