• Ben Erickson

Harry Potter and the WSO

With holiday blockbuster releases fast approaching we took a break to speak with Jeffrey Schindler, conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for the upcoming performance of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, who was gracious enough to offer his time and his insight into the music. Ben Erickson: What led you to conduct film music and how did you get involved with the Harry Potter Film Concert Series? Jeffrey Schindler: I had reached a point in my career, and in my life, where I was growing more and more interested in becoming involved with Hollywood music and film and commercial music in general. That was, I guess, twenty years ago, and to my good fortune I was teaching at a summer conducting institute, and a very prominent Hollywood orchestrator was there honing his skills. The more we talked the more interested I became in the motion picture industry. I also like working with living composers, and almost everybody who writes for films these days is alive, so that is how I got into conducting motion pictures. And I guess it is sheer dumb luck that I was approached to be part of the team that produces and sends out the Harry Potter Film Concert Series. BE: It is one task to interpret older works from composers long past and it is another to take on fresh music with fresh interpretations, so I can see the appeal. JS: Yes, Hollywood is also in a way today the last bastion - well, that's changing actually - twenty years ago the grand tradition was still being preserved, and in fact propagated, so it just made sense for me. BE: Have you previously conducted music from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? JS: Yes, I had the privilege to conduct Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone many times. BE: Based on your familiarity with the score: have you been able to find more that you can expose musically with each performance?

Jeffrey Schindler

JS: That is a great question, and the answer is yes. Somebody once asked me if I ever got complacent with performing the score so many times, and the answer is that this particular score - and in fact everything I have touched by John Williams - it reveals something new every time I conduct it and every time I experience it as a performer. The movie is extraordinary, and the music by JW is absolutely extraordinary. Every time I see it I see another subtlety that he has managed to address. My experience changes every time I do it. It is really a masterpiece of a score. BE: Continuing with that idea: what is the process, or what was the initial process for you in learning the music? Is it similar to how you would prepare, for example, a symphony? ​​JS: The answer to that is actually quite simple on one level and quite complex on another. It is very useful if you know how film music works and you understand how you need to hit particular moments in a film and allow the music to breath and move and let go the same way John Williams has conducted a lot of his own music. But I also treat film music as if it is concert music, and I study for it very, very carefully. I mark my scores very carefully. I treat it as if I was conducting a Wagner opera or a Mahler symphony. I try to know what the second clarinet is doing in measure 43 of a given cue, and it creates a connection between the orchestra players as well if you approach film music with the same attention to detail and nuance that any trained conductor, or any conductor that has worked in the classical world as I have, would bring to any piece of music. BE: Does that preparation include watching the film ahead of time? JS: Well, there is another aspect to this. This is just musical preparation for actually addressing the notes on the page and the music behind the notes on the page. But then there is the question that you bring up that, yes, you have to know the movie as well. So yes, in my preparation and learning of this score, and most of the music for The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I conducted a couple of weeks ago, I have to watch the movie in great detail, follow along the with score, etcetera. BE: How do you negotiate underscoring in a live performance setting? That is, because it is a live performance do you offer more attention to the music or do you accommodate other narrative elements such as dialogue and sound effects with the same sensitivity captured in the original score? JS: I think there are questions there being asked about two different things, one being a question of balance and the other being a question of synchronization. Now, synchronization - in this case there is a special conducting video that gives me visual tools that I use both in performance and in recording studios to keep the music aligned with the film. I have streamers and punchers, and I have time codes, bar counters, little messages and love notes that are sent to me through the video feed. So yes, that is one way we do this, and we do Harry Potter without a click track. It is all done without that metronomic element which allows the music to breath. In terms of sonic balances, a lot of that is prepared going into the rendering of the scores. The audio engineers are there to take care of that, but certainly we want to accommodate and know what effects there might be when we have to duck under dialogue and so forth. BE: Are there any unique instruments or performance practices we can listen for? JS: I believe there are some recorders you can listen for. BE: Like when Hagrid is playing recorder outside his hut later in the film? JS: Curiously, no, that is one of the few moments that is not rendered live. Of course, the featured players of the entire score are the celeste and the harp. Those are rather unusual instruments to feature. BE: It seems Williams is a fan of the harp, considering he uses it quite extensively in his scores, and it definitely provides something to look forward to for those listeners endeared to the instrument. JS: It is certainly a virtuoso part. I do not know whether he likes it or not, but he certainly knows how to use it. BE: Most people who watch movies enjoy a good story, and film music can revive our emotional experience with the films we love. Particularly those rare, wonderful films in which the music transcends the drama. Would you consider Harry Potter among those films? JS: I would not say that the music of Harry Potter transcends the drama. What I would say is that the music perfectly delineates the drama. I think this is a rare example perhaps of a perfect partnership between visuals, between cinema itself, and the music. It is really a great partnership in that a lot of people experience the theatre visually, and how the music speaks to that and enhances that is the genius of John Williams. He knows how to fly a jet liner and he knows how to fly a small propeller plane. He can do it all. BE: Beautifully put, thank you. Where do you rank Harry Potter among John Williams’ film scores? JS: Here is something that I would share, and it might sound as if I am deflecting the question. I was asked a similar question by someone a few weeks ago when I was in Sydney, Australia. They asked me what is my favourite piece of music, and I responded: "whatever I am conducting or performing at that particular moment." So, I would say the greatest film score John Williams wrote is the one I am conducting at that particular moment. That is probably the best way to put it. Williams' scores are so iconic by our age of film music that I think it is impossible to really categorize best or worst, or in my particular case favourite or least favourite. They are all magnificent and whenever I am involved with any of them, whether as an audience member or a performer, the one I am listening to is the one I like best. BE: What is your favourite cue from the score? JS: That is a tough one too, because I love so much of this score. I have many favourites for many different reasons. I am particularly fond, just because it is quirky, of Norbert's cue with the bass clarinet solo. I do like the big chess battle, full of confrontation. In a way, the answer is an extension to the previous question you asked in that my favourite cue is the one I am hearing in that moment. I suppose I have a particular fondness as well for the end credits which sort of encapsulates the entire score. BE: Thank you so much for your time, I look forward to the performances this weekend.

To learn more about Jeffrey Schindler visit his website here, or for more information on CineConcerts' upcoming performances click here. Mysterious, thrilling, and whimsical, John Williams’ score for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a modern fantasy classic. A beautiful balance between music and film, the score features a striking, ethereal celeste, vigorous, running string passages, sentimental woodwinds, and playful brass melodies, all part of Williams’ signature writing style. The theme for Harry Potter is adventurous and altogether quite apart from most of William’s other well-known themes. Set in a minor key, the melody sways and floats in triple meter, exposing the strange, chromatic, and magical nature of the wizarding world. Ever-present throughout the film, the music soon departs from its buoyant, elegant theme, diving into festive marches, slippery and dangerous motifs, and ending in a burst of sonorous elation. The score, full of astonishment and wonder, is truly as magical as the story itself. For those attending, be sure to stick around for the credits as they reprise several musical highlights, beginning with “Harry’s Wondrous World”. And for those of you who arrived too late to the box office, do not miss your chance to see two more classic scores, City of Lights and Wizard of Oz, performed live by the WSO at the Centennial Concert Hall. I for one look forward to attending more film music concerts in the coming seasons.