‘Amadeus Live’ conductor believes film’s popularity proves Mozart’s the tops

In most films, the music plays a valuable yet supporting role, enhancing and advancing the drama. But in Miloš Forman’s “Amadeus” (1984), the Oscar-winning biopic about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the music is unsurprisingly every bit as important as the story. Featured are excerpts from some of the famed composer’s greatest works, including The Marriage of Figaro, Piano Concerto No. 22, Great Mass in C Minor, Symphony No. 29, and of course, the composer’s Requiem, which serves as a focal point of the movie. 

These works are at the heart of the classical repertoire and all very much in the wheelhouse of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate movie to open the 2022-23 CSO at the Movies series than “Amadeus,” which won eight Academy Awards (out of 11 nominations) and was added in 2019 to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. The live-to-picture production, titled Amadeus Live, will be presented Oct. 13-16, with the orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus providing a live synchronous performance of the score, led by Constantine Kitsopoulos in his CSO debut. (The concerts Oct. 13 and 15 are part of the CSO Classical series, with the Oct. 14 and 16 dates as part of CSO at the Movies.)

“I’m very much looking forward to it,” he said. “The Chicago Symphony, I grew up with their recordings of various repertoire. It’s just a legendary orchestra, and to be able to do this music with them is going to be quite thrilling.”  

The film is adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 stage play, “Amadeus,” and centers on a fictionalized rivalry between Mozart and Antonio Salieri, another prominent composer of the day. In this telling, the latter even conjures a scheme to commission a requiem that he would claim as his own after killing Mozart and have it premiered at the funeral. “There is some artistic license taken in terms of various events,” Kitsopoulos said. “But it’s a story about jealousy and how one deals with that in the face of brilliant mind like Mozart, who is a complete natural at what they do. It’s a very human and universal story that’s crafted incredibly beautifully by Forman.”

“Some of the music I get to conduct is just fantastic, from Bernard Herrmann all the way through John Williams. And with ‘Amadeus,’ you can’t quite beat Mozart.” — Constantine Kitsopoulos

A big challenge with orchestral movie screenings is keeping the musical accompaniment in sync with the action onscreen. “With film with live orchestra, the one thing that is constant, that never changes is the film,” Kitsopoulos said. “If you’re not with the film, the film is going to keep going, no matter what you do.” To that end, conductors use a system known as “streamers and punches,” visual cues embedded in the film that are only visible on the conductor’s monitor that indicate a coming line of dialogue or cinematic event. Such synchronization is especially important in “Amadeus,” because the music and editing of the film are so closely aligned.

The music on the film’s soundtrack was conducted and supervised by Sir Neville Marriner and performed by the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The Grammy Award-winning soundtrack album reached No. 56 on the Billboard pop albums chart, and it has sold more than 6.5 million copies, making it one of the most popular classical releases of all time. For these screenings, the original orchestra and chorus performances have been stripped from the soundtrack, but, adding a layer of complexity, the vocal solos remain, and Kitsopoulos has to ensure that the orchestra and chorus are precisely in sync with them.

Collaborating with many top orchestras and working in opera and on Broadway, Kitsopoulos has had a varied career. Highlights include holding the post of assistant chorus master of the New York City Opera from 1984 through 1989 and serving as musical director and conductor of Baz Luhrmann’s 2002 Broadway production of “La Bohème.” For the past five or six years, he has devoted much of his time to movie screenings like this one at Orchestra Hall; he has more than 40 film scores in his repertoire. “I love the music,” he said. “Some of the music I get to conduct is just fantastic, from Bernard Herrmann all the way through John Williams. And, of course, with ‘Amadeus,’ you can’t quite beat Mozart.”

The idea of symphony orchestras providing live musical accompaniment to classic films began to take off about 25 years ago. The CSO first ventured into the realm in April 2001 with concerts of Charlie Chaplin’s score for “City Lights” (1931), alongside screenings of the classic silent film. The success of that rum led to the establishment in 2004-05 of a series now called CSO at the Movies.

Since then, some industry observers wondered if these orchestral screenings nationwide were just a fad, but their enormous popularity with audiences has proved to be lasting.

“It’s a great family experience,” Kitsopoulos said. “It’s a great way to introduce people to the sound of an orchestra, and it’s a great way to hear some terrific music.”

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