For live film concerts, says conductor Richard Kaufman, “the music really becomes a character, and the orchestra, in a sense, becomes musical actors."
Kaufman was already a fan of the soon-to-be-famous Williams, having enjoyed his soundtrack work for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969), a flop musical remake of the 1939 film. When he told Williams as much, the maestro looked at him as if to say, “Oh, are you the one who saw it?”
And so began a decades-long professional relationship during which Kaufman would play on several more Williams soundtracks, including the one for Spielberg’s blockbuster “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977).
More recently, in 2018, the two shared podium duties at Orchestra Hall when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed a program of Williams’ movie music, featuring many of the scores that won the composer five Oscars (and 52 nominations). Two months later, Kaufman returned to Symphony Center to conduct Williams’ soundtrack from “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope” (1977) while the movie was projected on a screen overhead.
He’ll do likewise when the CSO presents live-to-picture performances on June 30 through July 2 of Williams’ score for “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” (1983).
“John [Williams] really appreciates great storytelling, and the music he writes truly accompanies the story and only calls attention to itself when he means for it to call attention to itself.” — Richard Kaufman
As for what makes Williams’ film scores stand out, Kaufman prefaces his reply with insight from another Oscar-winning composer, the late Elmer Bernstein of “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) and “Ghostbusters” (1984) renown. Bernstein believed a successful film composer, more than being a writer of great melodies and orchestration, also must be a top-notch dramatist who can watch a film and determine where the music should and shouldn’t go.
Williams, Kaufman says, is a master of that. “John really appreciates great storytelling, and the music he writes truly accompanies the story and only calls attention to itself when he means for it to call attention to itself.”
Since Williams’ music is so “emotionally accessible,” Kaufman is hopeful that those who come to hear it live and have never been in a concert hall will be inspired by the experience and return for more typical orchestral fare.
Apart from the music, on a more logistical front, the process of synching soundtrack and visuals in a live setting is no easy feat. Even more challenging, Kaufman says, are the extended lulls. Unlike a typical symphony, during which an orchestra might have several bars’ rest, film scores call for musicians to stop playing for minutes at a time.
“It’s [a matter] of keeping the orchestra involved in terms of getting them to the highest level of energy very quickly after they’ve been sitting,” Kaufman says. “But when you have an orchestra like Chicago’s, whose players have a dedication and a commitment to excellence, you don’t have to do a lot to get them to be brilliant.”
But it’s a different breed of brilliance that goes into playing, say, a gorgeous Mozart or Beethoven symphony. “In film,” Kaufman says, “the music really becomes a character, and the orchestra, in a sense, become musical actors. In the case of a lot of orchestras, and certainly with the Chicago Symphony, they embrace this. And most of them, as they’ve expressed to me, really enjoy it.
“They really understand that the music is an important and integral part of the experience the audience will have.”
A version of this article originally appeared on Sounds and Stories, the predecessor site of Experience CSO.