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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The magic of the score: how Harry Potter will come alive

We talk to American composer Justin Freer about the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone live concert 

Conductor Tim Henty and 80-piece orchestra will perform John Williams' score.
Conductor Tim Henty and 80-piece orchestra will perform John Williams' score.

You would be hard-pressed to find people, particularly parents, who haven’t watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The 2001 family fantasy film, based on the blockbuster novels of British author J K Rowling, was the first of an equally successful franchise spawning eight films that grossed more than eight billion dollars.

Potterheads young and old can now relive the excitement of the series when The Philosopher’s Stone – about the adventures of young wizard Harry Potter (played by a baby-faced Daniel Radcliffe) as he reclaims his magical heritage – arrives in the capital for a screening at the du Forum, complete with musical score performed by a live orchestra.

It promises to be a deeply immersive experience. Shown in high-definition on a towering 40-foot screen, the score by John Williams will be recreated in painstaking detail by the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès of Sabadell, Spain.

With so much going on underneath the screen, the crowd will have a tough time knowing where to look. But that will eventually pass, according to American composer and show producer Justin Freer. It is once the orchestra melts away from people’s consciousness, he explains, that it is truly doing its job.

“One of the best compliments that film music can receive from viewers is that they didn’t realise the music score was even in the film,” he says.

“What that means, I think, is that they were taken into the film’s world through the music and you eventually become part of it.”

Sept 21 - 23 at the Du Forum,  Yas Island Abu Dhabi. Conductor Tim Henty and 80-piece orchestra will perform John Williams' score as the first HP - The Philosopher’s Stone plays on a 40-foot screen.
The Philosopher’s Stone plays on a 40-foot screen.

Through his Los Angeles-based company CineConcerts, Freer has pulled in millions of viewers into film worlds ranging from the mythical and historical to the futuristic. Founded five years ago, the company snapped up the rights to 15 films including The Godfather, Gladiator, Star Trek: the Ultimate Voyage and the rest of the Harry Potter series.

With productions touring more than 30 cities across Europe, South America and Australia, the du Forum show marks their debut for a Harry Potter performance in the Middle East. It also comes on the back of other film concerts held at Dubai Opera in December, in which the 21st Century Orchestra provided live musical accompaniment to screenings of Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Pointing to his company’s success, Freer believes he is part of new and expanding hybrid entertainment genre powered by a growing appreciation for film scores in general.

“The scene is evolving. I think that patrons and orchestras around the world are understanding and realising the legitimacy of this music, and what it can do to bring in fresh audiences,” he says.

“I think the power of music in film is something that is difficult to explain. This is especially when it’s a very well written score that is married well to the picture.

“The zeitgeist of film, mixed with the zeitgeist of music, coming together in a very powerful environment like a live performance does a lot of wonderful things for people. They get very excited."

Regarding The Philosopher’s Stone, Freer says the film was chosen as it exemplifies the best of both the movie franchise and classical music traditions.

“The most important element in film is always the story, character and music. In this case, the music does really well in getting us excited about these children’s adventures through the [wizard school] Hogwarts. There is mystery, danger, excitement, and it all comes in the music. There is a tremendous amount of drama, colour and orchestration to the work here.”

“John Williams has also always been a master at creating these beautiful melodies that we remember forever.

“That’s one of my favourite things about this particular score. The Quidditch match scene (an airborne lacrosse match played by wizards) is really the fans’ favourite. It’s a tour de force of music. There’s something for everybody. It’s very challenging to learn as a musician and challenging to conduct. There’s a lot of different styles, and it makes for a lot of fun on the evening.”

However, it is one thing to record the score in separate sessions and quite another to perform it live in one sitting.

This is where Freer comes in.

A highly regarded composer in Hollywood, Freer has written music as part of advertising campaigns for Avatar, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Aliens in The Attic. He works and rehearses with CineConcerts’ partner orchestras to get them performance-ready before they set off on tour.

While Freer won’t be conducting the Abu Dhabi show, he was occupied in the preparations and oversaw the rehearsals of the Orquestra Simfònica del Vallès.

“This form of performance does pose its own difficulties. The challenge is in that there is a lot of music to learn in a very short amount of time.

“For the members of the orchestra that means a lot of pressure,” he says.

“The orchestra comprises 85 players for this particular film. There is very large brass [section] and strings, and percussion. They’re a very good orchestra and they play so well together.”

But as in most artistic forms steeped in their own history and culture, new movements and innovations can provoke cynicism and derision.

Classical music is no different and Freer is aware of suggestions by some sections of the community that what he does is a form of classical karaoke. It’s an opinion, he counters, that is ignorant the rich history of both classical music and cinema.

“Of course there’s a link. The basic building blocks of classical music are what they are. We study Machaut and Renaissance polyphony, then early Benedictine song and modern avant-garde and 20th century techniques. It comes from the very beginning and it evolves. Without learning from these other composers, we wouldn’t have music,” he says.

“Film music in many ways was created by the very concert classical composers coming out of Germany and Austria during the 1930s and 1940s. They were these émigré coming to Hollywood, and they wrote some of the great film scores. That’s a direct connection in that they physically come from a very European classical tradition and started writing music for film.”

With the CineConcerts tour diary already full for the rest of the year, Freer says there are still a few more films he would love to give the live orchestra treatment.

“I have a long bucket list,” he says. “One of my favourites is Lawrence of Arabia. I think the music score by Maurice Jarre is one of the greatest we’ve ever had written in our craft.

“I also adore the music of Jerry Goldsmith. I hope that we can do more of his work. There’s a lot out there, but that’s a whole other conversation.”

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Concert will be performed at the du Forum at Yas Island from Thursday until Saturday. Tickets start from Dh150, at www.ticketmaster.ae

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Read more:

Travel the wonderful world of Harry Potter

Two new Harry Potter books set to be published in October

Sharing a lifelong love of reading with your child

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