- Morrison Center
- Conductor John Beal in his natural habitat.
In advance of the two shows on Oct. 14 (1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.), Boise Weekly spoke with John Beal, the well-known conductor, composer and music director who left Hollywood to travel the globe conducting orchestras for the CineConcert/Warner Bros. productions of Harry Potter. At the time of our conversation, Beal was in Knoxville, Tennessee, preparing for rehearsal and dreaming about fall weather in Boise.
I've heard that this is a worldwide tour. What has your travel experience been like?
There are six of these going as far as I know, all around the world … I’m doing the United States, two in Europe, and I’m going to Malaysia, too, I think. They just keep adding, so we just never know where we’re going next. It’s interesting trying to pack! I’ll be going from Luxembourg in the dead of winter to Kuala Lumpur in the dead of summer when it’s typhoon season. This is my first time around with the Harry Potter series, and I’m really looking forward to it. They’re great movies, and the opportunity to conduct for John Williams is just unbelievable.
Describe the experience of going to see a movie with a live orchestra playing.
You have about a 40-foot screen. They’re projecting the film, and the orchestra is sitting beneath it playing the exact score, note-for-note, in perfect sync with the movie, so it’s a really immersive experience. You get a chance to feel much more a part of the movie than when you’re just hearing the soundtrack in the background, especially because the orchestra oftentimes gets buried behind the sound effects. They usually add subtitles, in case the orchestra gets really loud and is having a really good time, so you can still understand the dialogue.
Is it difficult to conduct in perfect time with the film?
It’s a real challenge, but we have some technological wizards. This goes back to a technique that was developed right at the golden age of films. They used to use a yardstick and actually score a line in the film that was three feet long at a diagonal, and as you ran it through the projector you could see [a] streamer coming across. When it hit the right side of the screen was when your cue point was, and they used a hole punch to give you warning clicks, or tempos, for the first bar or two of each new tempo. Now they do it digitally.
Will the audience see any of this process happening?
No. I have a little monitor in front of my podium that I’m looking at. [The audience] is seeing the movie just as they would see it in the theater, and they’re hearing all the dialogue and all the effects ... we’re playing the soundtrack live. Some people in the balcony will be able to see [my] screen, probably over my shoulder, but it’s just a small TV monitor.
You have an extensive background working with film. How did this particular project come across your desk?
I had pretty much stopped composing. After a long career, I decided it was time for me just to sit back a little bit, but I missed the musicians so much, I contacted Justin [Freer, co-founder of CineConcerts] and said, ‘Hey, if you need an extra guy, let me know.’ We had a series of talks over a year, and then he asked me if I would step in. I did The Godfather for him, and that worked out OK, so he asked me to do these. I’m going to do two Harry Potter shows: The first one and the second one right now are on my schedule.
That will be over a couple of years, right?
Right. The first three are on the road right now. As long as the Harry Potter franchise holds up, these things are going to do great. So far, audiences are flocking to them. We just went to see the third one at the Hollywood Bowl with 16,000 people.
Will Boise get concerts for all eight films?
It’s my understanding Boise will get all of them as long as they’re interested. From my experience, this is what happens: They’ll do the first one and then the next half of the season or the following year, they’ll do the next one.
Do you have a favorite piece to conduct in this concert?
It’s hard to say because they’re all so different and challenging. Of course the quidditch matches are great. The big action scenes are the most challenging for the orchestra and for me, and they’re probably the most fun. They’re incredibly well written.
It sounds like you really enjoy your work.
These [concerts] really are fun. That's actually what triggered me into doing it. I saw friends of mine who are conductors do Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Trek and old movies like Vertigo and It’s a Wonderful Life. It was just so much fun to see these thing with a live orchestra, and I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ For me, at this point in my career, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.
Do concerts to films like Harry Potter bring in a different audience than you usually see?
This is the best thing in the world for symphony orchestras. It absolutely is putting people in the seats and not just young people but old people who just never got into symphony orchestras. I’ve noticed this with orchestras around the world when I’ve gone to see concerts that are live to film. Their audience is not the old gray-haired audience people expect at a symphony orchestra concert.
Do you think orchestras doing performances like these are picking up some of the slack in music education that has been cut from public schools?
Youth orchestras are incredibly important, and you’re right: Public schools are dropping music programs right and left, and it’s a real shame to see that happening. From my experience as a parent, when a child is busy doing these extracurricular activities—especially things like music that are challenging—their grades pick up because they budget their time better, and they’re using their brains in a whole different way. So I’m sorry to see that happening, but I’m thrilled to see all of the youth orchestras and youth outreach. In fact, American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles is starting to [play to film] now, too.