Modern Mozarts: Why movie, TV and video game scores are flooding classical concert halls

Symphonies are increasingly adding music from much-loved movies, TV shows and video games to their repertoires, pulling in new audiences and rejecting criticism that the trend dumbs down the classical genre.

'This is the same thing that they did 200 years ago,' says Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna

Symphonies are increasingly adding music from much-loved videogames, TV shows and movies to their pops repertoires — like an new tour of Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone with live orchestral accompaniment. (CineConcerts/YouTube)

From the first notes of that brassy, bombastic Star Wars theme, Larry Larson was hooked.

"That first big B-flat chord — we all jumped in our seats and went crazy," Larson recalled, his eyes lighting up at the memory of a 1977 cinema in suburban Chicago, surrounded by six friends from his high school rock band.

"We were all juiced, jazzed, high on the experience," he recounted. "We actually sat through the movie twice. The second time around, most of us were actually listening to the score as much as we were watching.

"I was 17 years old then and it was like 'OK. I want to do this now.'"

Star Wars introduced Larson to legendary movie composer John Williams "and it's been a love affair for 40 years now," said the principal trumpet player for the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.

Today, he's one of myriad orchestra musicians adding music from much-loved movies, TV shows and video games to their repertoires, pulling in new audiences and rejecting criticism that the trend dumbs down the classical genre.

There's nothing like hearing music from your favourite movie played live, Larson declared.

"It doesn't matter what kind of sound system you have in your home — 50-inch TV and surround sound — you're not going to get the same impact at all as going to it live."

How well do you know major movie musical scores? CBC News enlists Larry Larson of the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony to test some music fans. 1:21

A gateway to classical?

Pop music at the symphony has been around for decades, but venues have increasingly been expanding such offerings. Canadian orchestras are delighting fans new and old with live accompaniment of popcorn favourites like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Casablanca.

Meanwhile, lavish tours spotlighting the music of Harry PotterThe Lord of the RingsGame of Thrones, German film composer Hans Zimmer and video game series Final Fantasy have sold out concert halls, sports arenas and other large-scale spaces.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony's movie nights have been successes, filled with eager attendees who ultimately leave feeling excited after a night of symphonic music — an important takeaway, Larson noted.

Many orchestras have turned to doing movies, because of the potential for developing new audiences — without depriving subscribers of the classics. "Movie nights" are usually part of an orchestra's pop programming, so they don't take the spotlight from Beethoven, Mozart or Strauss, who continue to fill the roster regularly, he said.

Larson says these accessible nights can actually help newbies make musical connections – perhaps contrasting a Strauss tone poem to Zimmer's Gladiator score.

'Everybody knows it'

With the high calibre of many composers at work today, popular screen scores could be considered the classical music of our time. Famous works of Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Verdi, for instance, started off as commissions for ballet companies, church masses or opera troupes.

"It's the new ballet music," mused Mor Shargall, a flute and piccolo player working for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO), who stopped to play "name that movie tune" with CBC News recently.

"It was the music that was played to story. Now you can play it outside of doing a ballet. So this is the same thing… It stands alone on its own so well. Everybody knows it."

Furthermore, the kinds of pop scores typically being tackled by symphonies are usually complex, multilayered creations that employ a multitude of musicians and instruments — and sometimes incorporate influences from around the globe. So, conductors and players must have stamina and be on the ball to perform these compositions live.

A screen score may have taken weeks or months to record, but live orchestras will usually have just two or three rehearsals before opening night.  

It's maybe even a minor miracle that we get through to the end of the film all together synchronized- Justin Freer, CineConcerts

"There's a bit of magic between the orchestra and conductor that has to happen to get through it," admitted Justin Freer, co-founder of CineConcerts, the group behind the TSO's recent presentation of Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone.

"It's maybe even a minor miracle that we get through to the end of the film all together synchronized. It's quite a feat for an orchestra to be on top of every beat for nearly a three-hour period," Freer said, just before hitting a steakhouse to ingest the 3,000 calories a day he requires to keep up with each fast-paced performance.

"When Harry Potter and Voldemort come together for the first time in the mirror scene, there are so many elements kind of colliding: tempo elements, harmonic elements, melodic elements, dramatic elements that come from the orchestration. And when all of these collide, it's really a challenge to keep everything together, but it's some of the most beautiful material that [composer John Williams] wrote for the film."

Modern Mozarts

Film and TV music might once have been considered the "poor idiot cousin of classical music," but that notion has changed in the past 10-15 years, said Canadian composer Mychael Danna.

Onscreen music can be equal to Bach writing for the church or Handel writing for the stage, he said. The goal — then and now — is to entertain and enlighten the audience.

Writing scores for new artistic projects today, Danna said he feels a kinship with composers he's long respected, like Mozart and Beethoven.

"This is the same thing that they did 200 years ago," he said. "It's a really cool feeling to be part of that line."

Many symphony musicians have revealed to him that it was Star Wars, or some other memorable movie score, that first whetted their appetite for instrumental and orchestral music.

"Having film music being the entry point for people into orchestral music is fantastic because it's something that is removed from the snobbery… the archaic feeling of [classical music]," said Danna, whose screen scores range from TV's upcoming Alias Grace to movies as diverse as Moneyball, AraratThe Good DinosaurLittle Miss Sunshine and Life of Pi, for which he won an Oscar.

"It's the sign of a living culture, as opposed to something that's in a museum or in an academic setting…Orchestral music is very much alive."

With files from Eli Glasner