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There's method behind the madness of performing movie music live

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Sounds of Cinema
Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vanska says he hopes to create an annual January event to fill the post holiday lull. The first attempt is "Sounds of Cinema" which will feature movie music. Vanska says is there is a demand for more such concerts the possibilities are endless.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Imagine conducting a symphony orchestra. If you think about it, it is the mental equivalent wrestling an octopus. 

Now imagine wrestling that octopus by following precise instructions, written 80 years ago, which guide your moves, second by second, for an hour and a half.

That is the task facing the Minnesota Orchestra's Osmo Vanska. He is conducting the accompaniment at two Orchestra Hall screenings of Charlie Chaplin's 1931 film "City Lights." Vanska says Chaplin wrote the score himself.

Osmo Vanska
Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"And he has given very strict instructions how you have to do what happens in the movie, and how you have to be there at the same time," Vanska says.

"City Lights" is the story of Chaplin's iconic Little Tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl. It is classic Chaplin awash in romance and slapstick. 

The film was a silent made at the dawn of the talkies. Chaplin intended for his score to be recorded -- and it was.  It is only in recent years that the music has been played live with the film. 

Vanska, known for his painstaking preparation, says "City Lights" has been a particular challenge.

"Before the first rehearsal I had to study the score with the movie again and again to see those really important spots, how to get there and be prepared for that," he says. 

"I really believe that amongst the greatest music ever composed, in the history of music, was written for films. I think the 20th century's greatest symphonic works, many of them, most of them, a lot of them, were written for the motion pictures."

Vanska says during the performance he will not have time to look up at the screen. So he had a TV monitor installed on the podium so he can make sure he is still in sync with the pictures.

Even more of a challenge is the performance of Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film "Battleship Potemkin.."  The story of the 1905 sailors uprising in Odessa was voted the best film ever made at the 1958 World's Fair.

The score is drawn from five Shostakovich symphonies. It is so complicated,  Vanska is bringing an old colleague from the Lahti Symphony in Finland, Essi Heikkila, to conduct the piece. 

"He studied many months that score when it was in Lahti. And I know that his performance was the best so far," Vanska says. 

So why go to all this trouble? 

Vanska says it is to draw a certain audience. Vanska believes there are fans of symphonic music who just do not know it yet -- movie fans. Vanska says many of them love the symphonic music they hear on soundtracks, but need to be coaxed into a concert hall. 

It is an idea well familiar to Bruce Crawford. He is the Omaha-based film historian who has made a career of creating orchestral programs of film music. He is helping arrange three other concerts which are part of the Sound of Cinema series. He does not mince words about the importance of movie music. 

"I really believe that amongst the greatest music ever composed, in the history of music, was written for films," he says. "I think the 20th century's greatest symphonic works, many of them, most of them, a lot of them, were written for the motion pictures."

Crawford will introduce some of the programs, although he will leave hosting duties for the final two concerts of science fiction film music to George Takai. He is better known to millions as Star Trek's "Mr Sulu." 

Bruce Crawford
Movie historian Bruce Crawford says he became obsessed with movie music after his parents took him to see "Mysterious Island" as a child. He now presents film music programs in his native Omaha, and will host some of the "Sounds of Cinema" concerts at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
Image courtesy Bruce Crawford

Maestro Osmo Vanska says the experience of seeing these films with music played live by a full orchestra offers something not possible with a recorded soundtrack. 

"Live performance, there is risk that something goes wrong," he says. "But there is also an opportunity that something might be even tighter and even giving at that moment something for every listener."

Vanska says his ultimate aim is to provide the best performances possible, and if there is a demand for more movie music, there are no limits.