Richard Kaufman explains how the score animates the mirth of ‘Home Alone’

When film buffs think of John Williams movie soundtracks, what immediately comes to mind? Just a guess, but it’s probably not “Home Alone.”  More likely it’s “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “E.T.” — dramatic action films propelled by soaring strings and rumbling timpani and stentorian brass. Or, in the case of “Schindler’s List,” the stirring violin of Itzhak Perlman. “Home Alone” is different. ‘ 

If you’re unfamiliar with the 1990 Christmas comedy classic, it’s the story of 8-year-old Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin), who’s accidentally left behind at his family’s home in suburban Winnetka, while they jet off on a holiday vacation to Paris. At first delighted to be on his own, he’s soon forced to protect himself and his house from two bumbling burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) who keep trying but failing (hilariously) to rob the place, thanks to Kevin’s makeshift defenses. There’s suspense. There’s mystery. There’s action. Williams’ score complements, and augments, every slapstick moment.

“It’s almost like animation,” says conductor Richard Kaufman, who will lead members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in “Home Alone” in Concert, a CSO at the Movies event Dec. 8-10. “If you look at the scenes where the bad guys are trying to break into the house, it’s animation writing. It accompanies every movement, every moment. If they’re hit on the head, the music hits them on the head. If they’re sneaking around, the music is sneaking around with them. When the next door neighbor comes in and saves Kevin, there’s relief — and the music plays relief. At the end [spoiler alert], when the old man is reunited with his family, the music just brings you to tears that this wonderful thing has happened.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Kaufman was steeped in music and movies from an early age. Trained as a violinist, he eventually played on several hit movie soundtracks — two of them, “Jaws” (1975) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) — under the baton of Williams, who became a friend and mentor. He also served as the music director for MGM and has led major orchestras all over the world. Much of that conducting has involved live-to-film performances: “Amadeus” (1984), a few “Star Wars” flicks, “Jurassic Park” (1993), “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (18=981), “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “Psycho” (1960). “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” too.

“John’s music is like taking a black-and-white picture and splashing all sorts of colors against it. Suddenly, boom, it pops out at you right and left from moment to moment.” — Richard Kaufman on John Williams’ film scores

Which is to say, he’s an expert at this stuff, and “Home Alone” is far from his first rodeo. But that doesn’t mean the experience will be any less intense. Syncing pre-recorded visuals to live music, especially the live music of a full symphony orchestra, is no small feat. It requires sophisticated digital technology and unwavering focus from everyone involved. And just because “Home Alone” is a light comedy doesn’t mean it’s any less difficult to pull off musically.

For instance, during a break-in scene where Kevin is trying to thwart the burglars, the musical cues come fast and furious. “The orchestra has to be on its toes,” Kaufman says, noting that the CSO is definitely up to the challenge. “There are lots of changes, time-wise. Starting and stopping. John writes so beautifully, and the orchestra just goes for it and gets every bit of emotion out of it, which is fun. John’s music is like taking a black-and-white picture and splashing all sorts of colors against it. Suddenly, boom, it pops out at you right and left from moment to moment.”

What Williams hardly ever does, however, is stand out. That’s not a film composer’s job unless it’s called for in the screenplay.

“The great composer Elmer Bernstein once said that the most important skill of a composer isn’t writing melodies,” Kaufman says. “The most important skill of a film composer is to be a great dramatist, to look at the screen and realize where you should have music and where you shouldn’t have music. [Film and musical theater composer] Bronisław Kaper said the loudest sound and emotion in a picture is silence. So a composer’s challenge is to look at the film [and decide], where is it working? Where does it need help? Where do you want to accentuate what the audience is seeing, or where do you want to take them? And being a great dramatist, John Williams is able to do that. Musically, he takes us on a journey through the film, and we never feel that the music is overwhelming. It’s always either a part of it or is [making] its own statement.”

So, too, are the CSO musicians. In effect, Kaufman says, the music is a character, and they’re musical actors. As such, he likes to give them “ownership of what’s going on.”

“Some orchestras are very timid,” Kaufman says. “Chicago is remarkable because they get it. They sit down and they start to play and they take the notes off the page and make it music.”