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Two of the most beloved scores by JW for fantasy movies, now pitted against each other. What score do you personally consider is the best? The nautical adventures of Hook? Or the magic in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone? Vote now!
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone In Concert Oulu Sinfonia, 3rd of March, Oulu Finland A Review by Mikko Ojala Film music fans are living in an exciting era right now as more and more of the famous and beloved scores from equally popular films are making a transition to the concert halls around the world via the live projection/in concert tours where the full film score is performed live to the movie. While such an event might be a hard sell for a wider audiences if there were just 2+ straight hours of music on its own, the combination of film and music makes it a more marketable premise, which has been a growing trend for a decade now and a really welcome boon for film music enthusists around the globe. Entire franchises are now being presented this way and Harry Potter In Concert tour which will eventually span the entire eight film saga is making rounds of performances around the world. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone to the North American fans) is now touring in several countries across Europe and two such sold-out concerts performed by the Oulu Sinfonia orchestra conducted by John Jesensky took place in Oulu Finland on 2nd and 3rd of March 2017 at the Madetoja Concert Hall packed full of excited fans of Harry Potter and John Williams. I had the privilege of attending the second night and it was nothing short of spectacular. I feel that John Williams’ colorful scores are essentially tailor made for such a concert setting. They employ the full register of a symphonic ensemble with a wide array of percussion and choice synthesizers to complement the standard orchestral roster. More over the scores are intricately orchestrated and thematically expansive and follow the narrative of the film from start to finish, which makes them ideal in a symphonic setting as they are akin to an opera without a libretto to paraphrase composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s analogy of his own balletic films scores. Williams’ scores might feel to some people like an oversaturation of sound and almost a distraction in their exuberance but in a concert hall the lengthy soundtrack like Philosopher’s Stone came to life in an electrifying way and with nearly wall-to-wall musical presentation left no dead spots of lengthy silences between pieces and flowed very naturally from one cue to the next akin to a regular symphonic concert. The audience was highly enthusiastic throughout and actually was encouraged by the conductor at the start of the concert to applaud and cheer their favourite moments, characters and pieces of music. And they did, admittedly sometimes to the detriment of the music as the whistling and excited clapping drowned out a few moments of Williams’ score. I know this is supposed to be something of an event but I personally went to enjoy the music rather than to make huge giddy noises at every appearance of a well-known actor but all in all it was a minor inconvenience and it was nice to see people enjoying the music and the film so much. For the usually reserved Finns this was a surprisingly strong reaction which speaks volumes of the fondness people feel towards this movie and its music. On a more technical note the In Concert series follows the music of the final film very closely, including replications of tracking (e.g. Entry to Great Hall music is used for the Diagon Alley introduction) and not restoring unused passages of music (like parts of the cue You’re a Wizard, Harry for Hagrid’s initial revelation) but in this case the transitions were seamlessly handled and luckily such interferences with the music are kept to a minimum in the original film without heavy handed editing or cutting of the score. I thought that the mix of the sound effects and dialogue was very well balanced in the hall so that the music received its undisputed spotlight as the main event of the evening and boy did it deliver. From my seat in the middle of the hall I had a great vantage point over the entire orchestra and the big movie screen behind them and I have to admit that at times I was so lost in the whole experience I forgot to pay attention to the orchestra and the music. The reason was simply that they played so perfectly and in-sync with the film that the music just flowed seamlessly with the picture to form a complete experience. And the music truly filled the 800 seat concert hall to the brim as the acoustics of the Madetoja Concert Hall are rather excellent and it was a true thrill to hear the whole venue ring with the sheer orchestral thunder of Williams’ most exciting setpieces like the in turn rousingly heroic and kinetically tense The Quidditch Match, the menacingly marching and percussively brilliant The Chess Game sequence and the malevolently slithering and booming The Face of Voldemort finale. But it was not only the loudest parts that impressed me as the softer and delicate moments throughout shone thanks to the deft and sensitive playing of the orchestra members, e.g. the magical Harry Gets His Wand and the wonderfully ethereal and soothing Dumbledore’s Advice voicing the old wizard’s wisdom or the sleepily serenading harp solo of Fluffy’s Harp. For a keen fan of Williams’ music the evening was full of musical highlights. A live performance really breathes a life and energy of its own into the music as the orchestra responds to the mood and excitement of the audience and there was a tangible feeling of high spirits in the air. I concede that there is that certain Max Steiner spirit to the score’s technically admirable and intricate connection to the physical action down to the minute physical detail of Mickey Mousing swish and flick but what is more important is the emotional atmosphere this music creates. From those opening swirling notes that underscore Warner Bros logo to the last giddily triumphant blast of Hedwig’s theme in the end credits the audience held under the enchantment of Williams’ writing that so openly speaks to the heart and imagination. And with a highly thematic score like this it feels like you wouldn’t really need the visuals to be able to follow the story as the music is so expressive, so balletic and so clear in its narrative intentions that it paints the events with an aural ease that still impresses me after all these years. Hedwig’s theme rules supreme over the proceedings in the first score as Williams presents it in countless variations throughout, in a way equating the melody and its airy orchestrations with magic, the theme a trigger for wonder and marvels about to unfold. And though there might be some repetition in this process, music conditioning as it were, there is a reason this theme has become the signature tune of the whole franchise, so well it captures the very essence of Harry Potter’s world and the sheer feeling of magic and mischief. And besides the main theme the score is a treasure trove of musical ideas large and small that all add their combined splashes of colour and texture to the whole and enhance their respective story elements from the weightless whirls of flight to the rumbling motifs for the main villain. One of the rare pleasurable opportunities these events allow for the audience is to see and hear in front of their eyes the connection between the image and the sound in more depth, enhanced by the fact that the music is brought to the foreground. This highlighted some aspects of this score even for me, a seasoned Williams fan, who has heard the music countless times before. Now I could more clearly than ever feel that gradual progression from the opening half full of Hedwig’s theme towards the second half of the film as the music becomes slowly more diverse and gathers darker colours to it for the dramatic final scenes before drawing the musical story to a tenderly cathartic “And they lived happily ever after” denouement of Leaving Hogwarts. It might be a textbook case of how to score such a film but it worked wonders, further enhanced by the live performance's energy. Also an observation I made during the concert is that apart from the celesta (played on synthesizer as per Williams’ original intentions for the singular celesta sound he developed with the piano player Randy Kerber for the first film) there are no really prominent soloist moments in this score and even though there certainly are solo moments they blend very much to the orchestral tapestry. All orchestral sections do get their workout at some point or another whether woodwinds, strings or brass but in comparison this music is rather closer to Star Wars and Jurassic Park than Memoirs of a Geisha or Schindler’s List in the way such elements are handled. The playing of the whole ensemble was exemplary on Friday night with particular praise going to the keyboard player whose numerous celesta solos were flowing and flawless and to the stalwart brass section which in typical Williams fashion had a lot of breathless music to play and came through with flying colours. And after the end credits had finished I could not help but to start a well-deserved standing ovation to them for delivering to us this memorable evening. As I was walking out of the hall after the emotionally intense two-and-a-half hours of music I was thinking how lucky we film music fans are to be living in times like these. Although I have seen such live projection events before and knew what to expect, hearing the music of my favourite composer performed live to the film was simply a magical, inspiring and unforgettable experience that made me more than a bit giddy when I was stomping my foot to the tune of Williams’ music or smiling and nodding approvingly to a particularly finely performed passage. Truly a night to remember. Now bring on the rest of the music from this series! -Mikko Ojala-