The word “concert” gets you thinking about the thrill of hearing music live—and if you do consider the visual components of the experience, they’re probably secondary at best. So the idea of “a film in concert” is one with immediate contradictions, but that hasn’t stopped the Boston Pops from putting on such performances for years now. In past outings, the orchestra has performed live scores alongside screenings of Hollywood classics like Singin’ in the Rain  and The Wizard of Oz . And looking ahead, current Pops conductor Keith Lockhart teases the possibility of performing live scores for newer works, such as Best Picture winner The Artist , as well as for more canonical entries, like Alfred Hitchcock/Bernard Herrmann collaborations including Psycho  and Vertigo . The latest film-related events, however, land somewhere in between “modern favorites” and “accepted canon”—the Pops has recently performed scores for screenings of films made by the composer/director team of John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Much like Herrmann and Hitchcock, Williams and Spielberg have a partnership that approaches legendary status. And Williams, in particular, is no stranger to Symphony Hall or the Pops: He served as their conductor from 1980 to 1993, before Lockhart took over.
“Like so many people of various generations, I’ve really grown up with his music,” says Lockhart, speaking over the phone. “I was a little intimidated when I had to come to Boston in 1995 and take over for him. He’s a very modest, very self-effacing human being. I’m so glad he’s still part of the Pops family.”
Williams currently serves as conductor laureate and returns annually for the John Williams Film Night event, which celebrates a variety of classic film scores (with Lockhart and Williams both conducting). And the event’s most recent incarnation—on May 31, 2017—marked the first occasion where every piece performed was originated by Williams himself. “I’ve always been impressed by just the sheer range of John’s career—it’s not just the amount of output, but the range of output,” says Lockhart. “He’s somebody who has the profundity to write a score like Schindler’s List  as well as the musical exoticism to compose Memoirs of a Geisha . Then, there’s the action-adventure output of things like Superman , Raiders of the Lost Ark , and Star Wars , plus the overall fantasy of eternal childhood movies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial , The BFG , Hook  and Harry Potter… —it’s just amazing.”
The collaborations between Williams and Spielberg have been celebrated by the Pops for years, via both its Film Night and “Film in Concert” events. This happened most recently in May, when Jaws  and E.T. were both were projected alongside live orchestral accompaniment from the Pops at Boston Symphony Hall.
But doing so requires far more than just a conductor and their players. The preparation required for performing a sound film live in concert with orchestral accompaniment is a lengthy, multistep process. First the orchestra receives a high definition ProRes file—a lossless video compression format—from the film’s distributor. That file features audio that’s uniquely assembled into separate stereo tracks, with the film’s original score completely stripped from the mix. From there, all sound effects, dialogue, and other remaining source music elements are reworked to create an optimal balance for presenting the film with full symphony orchestra accompaniment. And while this file is being prepared, a separate corresponding film file is tailored specifically for Lockhart. Displayed on a small screen above the conductor’s sheet music, this additional video file includes audio and visual cues to assist Lockhart in keeping the musical accompaniment in sync with the picture. “Even missing something by a half second is pretty late,” says Lockhart.
It’s an exceptionally ambitious concept, and the work of Spielberg and Williams fits it perfectly. “E.T. in Concert,” as presented by the Pops, was an otherworldly experience. The last 30 minutes of the film are known for eliciting strong responses, and the live score enhanced the immediacy of those feelings immeasurably. “Jaws in Concert” managed to elicit some golden reactions from the audience as well, despite the fact that its rightfully iconic score is deployed far more sparsely than E.T.’s (seeing an entire audience jolt in unison after an underwater Richard Dreyfuss discovers a severed head, complete with an orchestral punch of the score, was particularly rewarding). With its familiar “da-dum” theme, and its sudden bursts of explicitly audible assaults, the suspense and thrills of Spielberg’s oceanic adventure also became increasingly effective with live accompaniment.
Spielberg/Williams may be perfectly fit to this method of exhibition, but witnessing a film in concert is a unique venture regardless of what’s onscreen. Lockhart hopes that seeing certain movies this way will be unlike any movie-going experience the viewer has encountered before, and he’s certainly validated in these aspirations. But it must be noted that these performances are undoubtedly in favor of a film’s musical side, to the potential detriment of cinema’s other elements. The low points of a film-in-concert experience mainly relate to exhibitional compromises—you can’t help but recognize the moments where a darkened movie theater projecting a bright, 35mm-film print would be superior to the presentations happening behind the orchestra.
First is the visual presentation itself. The screen above the stage in Boston Symphony Hall is not huge by any means, but it’s also not small—in fact, it’s the perfect size to take in the digitally processed film file (which is screened via a projector not too different from what you’ll find at your local multiplex). But that screen is then diminished by exposure to way too many light sources—from the sides of the seating sections and from directly below the screen—which are, of course, necessary for the orchestra to adequately perform. There is also the unfortunately raised positioning of the screen itself, which requires you to crane your neck upward in order to disregard the unusually high amount of activity happening in your peripherals. Said activity usually comes when the films are without score: Since the majority of the audience is there for the musical experience, scenes of dialogue become opportunities for patrons to get up and refresh themselves, all while the wait staff works to stay on top of food and drink orders. These actions are accompanied by the side doors swinging open—driving more light inside the auditorium—as well as by a persistent creaking of the wooden floors. Everyone’s just waiting for the next passage of music to arrive, which can prove disheartening for some people.
That’s not a deal breaker by any means, but it’s a drawback inherent to the experience. Within a show like these, the film is an accessory to the music, more so than the other way around. This is a musical performance more than a cinematic presentation—but the Pops does deliver a truly marvelous performance. While performing live scores for movies, despite all the steps and bumps in the process, it gets close to the second definition of “concert”: “agreement, accordance and harmony.”