Emil de Cou recalls how the film ‘Fantasia’ led him to pursue classical music

Long before Emil de Cou became an internationally known maestro, he was a diehard fan of movies and music. Eventually he found a way to combine those passions at the highest level.

Since 1994, when he first began conducting film scores with the San Francisco Symphony, de Cou has led world-class orchestras (including the Chicago Symphony) through rousing performances of soundtracks by John Williams, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Alan Silvestri, Michael Giacchino and other titans of the genre. In 2000, de Cou launched a movie music concert series at Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts.

He’s due back at Symphony Center on Nov. 24-26 to guide the CSO through Walt Disney’s animated classic “Fantasia,” a film that has profound personal significance.

“I saw ‘Fantasia’ as a teenager when it was re-released in theaters,” he says during a break from his gig as principal conductor and music director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. “I loved music, but I didn’t know what to do with my life. When I left the movie theater, I thought, I want to be a classical musician. And I knew it just like I knew the sky was blue. It just blew my mind.”

He no doubt hopes it will blow many other minds, too, as the CSO plays while the film is projected on a big screen overhead. That’s no easy task, he says. But when the whole thing comes together, as it usually does, it’s well worth the stress.

De Cou spoke about “Fantasia” in Concert (which includes segments from “Fantasia 2000”) and movie music in general:

Do you feel extra pressure conducting film scores because audiences are so familiar with them?

It always feels like a high-wire act. It is very scary, even if I've done it [before]. We did the [live-to-picture] world premiere of “The Wizard of Oz” in 2006 at Wolf Trap with the National Symphony Orchestra. I’ve probably conducted that 10 or 15 times, but it never gets easy because it’s always different. It’s very changeable. Orchestras are different. Acoustics are different. People hear each other differently. So it’s always a bit of a trick.

We just did “The Return of the Jedi” at Wolf Trap, a sold-out show, and at the end of that, I was absolutely exhausted. I felt like I’d conducted the whole “Ring” cycle in a row. It just was a fiery, exhausting thing to do. The music for these films was never meant to be played all in a row. With any soundtrack, they record a minute or two minutes at a time, then splice it together. But to play two-and-a-half or three hours of film music, especially the way [the scores] are written now, you don't get any breaks in between [scenes]. The current trend is for everything to be underscored.

You can’t miss a beat.

Oh, my God, no. And I’m thinking, like, three minutes ahead. Also, studio orchestras are playing for microphones. The Chicago Symphony or the National Symphony are playing for Orchestra Hall or the Kennedy Center. So you’re having to play such a big symphonic sound and be nimble at the same time. And that’s a real trick.

What I hear you saying is that what you do is way harder than what Riccardo Muti does.

I wouldn't dare say that. [Laughs]

What is it about the combination of music and film that captures people’s emotions? You did a “Raiders of the Lost Ark” performance in 2016 to especially thunderous applause. 

As so many people have said to John Williams, including members of the National Symphony, he kind of wrote the soundtrack to their childhood. “Raiders,” “Jaws,” “E.T.” — these all conjure up very powerful memories, at least for me, of growing up and being aware of film and the importance of music in film. I always look at [these concerts] as being about the music, because certainly you can go home and watch any movie you want that’s perfectly [synched] up. But when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra plays these scores, it brings them to life. You experience them in a whole different way, because so much of great soundtracks get lost in the dialogue or special effects or explosions. You still experience the film, but it’s like you’re hearing the score in 3-D.

Has there been a mentality shift over the years among orchestras about playing popular music like Williams’?

There's not a musician in the country I have ever run across who does not admire his great, great contribution to orchestral music. When it’s done incredibly well, like John Williams or [Franz] Waxman or [Max] Steiner or Bernard Herrmann, orchestras really treat that music as seriously as Samuel Barber or Tchaikovsky. Because it’s so profound and it’s so rare for us to find somebody who can paint a sound picture that goes along with “North by Northwest” or whatever film you’re doing. But it’s very demanding. And the orchestration, especially in a film like “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” is like playing Prokofiev on Red Bull or something.

Do you think these film concerts attract people to other types of orchestral performances who might otherwise not attend?

I would think so. The hardest part is getting people to go into these concert halls like Orchestra Hall, the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall. Because people think, “Oh, I don’t know how to behave. I don’t know how to dress up.” But with a movie show, people just go like they’d go to a movie theater and everyone has a great time. It’s a beautiful space that’s very welcoming. The work is incredibly welcoming. And then I think they might want to come back. I would [also] love it for people who love Bruckner to come and see “Fantasia” or “Jaws.” Because there are also a lot of people who think, “Oh, it’s a pops concert, it’s a movie show,” not knowing how incredibly fun and emotionally moving it can be. So I think it goes both ways.

Have you ever tried your hand at composing a film score?

No, I haven’t. I would like to, though. I think that would be fun. Growing up in L.A., I loved films even before I loved orchestra music. Film was a huge passion. It still is. When I was young, my mom had a bunch of dolls. So for Mother’s Day [one year], I got my dad’s Super 8 camera and made a little movie called “My Mom’s Killer Dolls.” I put music behind it, but it’s stock music. Maybe I’ll get around to doing some original scoring.

I’d watch it.

All right, I'll get to work on that.