Lights, Camera, Music! How do orchestras play with films?

If you have ever watched part of a movie on mute, you know that without music, scary scenes aren’t as scary and happy endings just aren’t as happy. A live orchestra can take the emotional impact of a movie’s music to a whole new level, making suspenseful scenes terrifying, sad moments heartbreaking, and our protagonists’ victories truly ecstatic.

Movies—they’re better with a band

The practice of accompanying a film with live music recalls the glitz and glamour of the silent movie era, when lavish premieres would feature music provided by full orchestras. Recently, film with live orchestra has made a surprising comeback, due in no small part to increased recognition for Hollywood’s leading composers.

John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma take their bows after a sold-out 2013 performance with the Houston Symphony.

John Williams and Yo-Yo Ma take their bows after a sold-out 2013 performance with the Houston Symphony.

Of those luminaries, the reigning king of film scores is without question John Williams, and the Houston Symphony will be performing two of his most popular scores live to picture this summer, including Jurassic Park. Just to name a few of his many honors, Williams has won 5 Oscars, 3 Emmys, 4 Golden Globes and 23 Grammys Awards, and with 50 Academy Award nominations, he is second in history only to Walt Disney (who received 59). Having scored dozens of films, television shows and live events, John Williams has contributed to the soundtrack of modern American life in a way that few can rival—and his instrument of choice is the orchestra.

For film scores, precision is key

Coordinating a live orchestra with a film isn’t easy. Operations Director Becky Brown oversees just about everything that goes on backstage at Houston Symphony concerts, including our film with live orchestra presentations. “When the orchestra performs a live film score, there are definitely technical challenges,” she said.

On June 15 and 16, 2017, the Houston Symphony presents Jurassic Park—Film with Live Orchestra.

On June 15 and 16, 2017, the Houston Symphony presents Jurassic Park—Film with Live Orchestra.

Perhaps the most difficult challenge is that the musicians have to remain in sync with the film. There may be room in some scenes for a little give and take, but every film has lots of key moments where the music and image need to line up precisely.

The first line of defense is the conductor, who is ultimately responsible for keeping the orchestra together. “As with any type of repertoire, all conductors work slightly differently,” Becky said. Depending on the conductor’s preference, there are several kinds of technology he or she can use to keep the music and film in sync.

Becky explained, “The first is called a click track. The conductor and musicians wear headphones, and listen to what is essentially a metronome in order to stay synced.” So while you are listening to the music and watching the movie, all of the musicians are hearing the tick-tock of a metronome that keeps them in time with the film. “The other common way is for the conductor to have a monitor playing the movie near the podium. As the movie plays, a black bar goes across the screen from left to right. When it hits the right, the conductor gives the first beat in the next measure.”

What if technology fails?

Technical aids aside, the conductor really has to know the score and how it fits with the movie, especially in the event of a technical mishap. Fortunately, our conductor for Jurassic Park this summer, Constantine Kitsopoulos, is among the best in the business, as he demonstrated during a Houston Symphony performance of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek in 2014. The click track and monitor failed, but Kitsopoulos knew the film so well that he was able to conduct the score flawlessly anyway—no mean feat, considering that composer Michael Giacchino (who also wrote the music for Up, Ratatouille and Rogue One) was in the audience that night. As Becky said of Kitsopoulos, “he is a great colleague for the orchestra, staff, and technical crew.”

Constantine Kitsopoulos, conductor

Constantine Kitsopoulos, conductor

Besides staying in sync, “Another challenge is balancing the sound,” said Becky. “Often films have loud sound-effect sequences or uneven dialogue levels.” An audio engineer may have to tweak sound levels in real time during a performance to make sure everything is balanced.

Besides the music, there is also the projection of the film itself to worry about. “We set up a playback station for the engineers who are running the movie,” Becky said. “The films themselves run on software that allows the engineer to jump to specific points. This allows us to skip through dialogue sections during rehearsal. The playback station is sometimes backstage and sometimes in the mezzanine section, but it is from these positions that the technician sends the film onto the screen through the special projectors in the film booth.”

Our John Williams presentations this summer are just a few of the films we have planned in the coming year. Movie lovers can also look forward to Psycho at Halloween and Disney’s Fantasia in January. Hope to see you at Jones Hall soon!

Don’t miss our next film with live orchestra presentation, Jurassic Park.

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The Sound of History—Gabriela Lena Frank’s New Conquest Requiem

As Gabriel Lena Frank’s productive three year tenure as the Houston Symphony’s Composer-in-Residence comes to a close, this Latin Grammy-winning and Grammy-nominated composer has been preparing one of her most ambitious projects to date. Frank’s new Conquest Requiem calls for a large orchestra and chorus, plus soprano and baritone soloists. This is a big piece not only in terms of number of performers, but also in its message. The Conquest Requiem is the composer’s commentary on a pivotal era in history that has long fascinated her: the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire.

Gabriela Lena Frank, composer

Gabriela Lena Frank, composer

“I suppose this has been a while coming as I’ve long been a collector of the testimonials of the conquest’s many chroniclers—the conquistadores, the priests and friars, and the natives,” Frank reflected. As a composer of Chinese, Jewish, Eastern European, Peruvian, Spanish, and Quechua-Indian descent, Frank herself is a product of this historical epoch. “Tackling one aspect of the conquest for this piece comes from a personal connection to an event of such magnitude,” she said. “At the same time that entire societies were decimated, we witnessed the birth of new music, literature, food, political philosophies and, yes, even religions.”

Frank was especially attracted to the stories of two real historical figures who played important roles in the conquest and are represented in the Requiem by the soprano and baritone soloists: Malinche and Martín. “I think the most poignant commentary can be made by looking at the stories of individuals,” Frank said. “To that end, the Conquest Requiem is inspired by the true story of Malinche, a Nahua woman from the Gulf Coast of present-day Mexico who was given to the Spaniards as a young slave.  Malinche’s prowess as an interpreter of her native Nahuatl, various Mayan dialects, and Spanish elevated her position. She converted to Christianity and become mistress to Cortés during his war against the Aztecs, and would later give birth to their son Martín, one of the first mestizos of the New World.”

Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II.

Hernán Cortés and Malinche meet Moctezuma II.

“Depending on how history treats her, Malinche is viewed variously as a feminist hero who saved countless native and European lives, as a treacherous villain who facilitated genocide, as a conflicted victim of forces beyond her control, or as a symbolic mother of hew new mestizo people.  Her story is at once personal and historic.”

The requiem itself is a fusing of European and Native American influences. In a highly original move, Frank decided to incorporate the rhythms and inflections of three different languages into this new piece. Listeners familiar with Requiems by Mozart and Verdi will recognize verses from the traditional Latin text, but interwoven with these well-known words is poetry written by Aztec nobility in Nahuatl. Frank has had a longtime interest in Nahua literature: “For a few months while a grad student at the University of Michigan, I took some private tutorials in Nahuatl, but other than that, really had little familiarity with Nahuatl,” she recalled. “A great aid to me was a current graduate student at the University of California at Davis, Cuauhtemoc Quintero Lule, who helped me with translation and pronunciation. The Nahuatl is mostly assigned to our two soloists who carry the roles of Malinche and Martín.  Latin is sung by all.”

To link together the Latin and Nahuatl text, Frank called on one of her most frequent collaborators, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Nilo Cruz. “When we met in the fall of 2007, the artistic chemistry was instant,” Frank recalled. “I’ve actually done six pieces with Nilo, with the Requiem being the seventh, and we’re about to embark on an opera for our eighth!”

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Nilo Cruz

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Nilo Cruz

For the requiem, Cruz contributed “essential Spanish lyrics that not only tell the story of Malinche and her mestizo son, Martín, but also tie together the traditional liturgical verses from the Latin Mass for the Dead with Nahua poetry as chronicled by fallen Aztec princes. Of course, Nilo excels as a wholly original and wondrously lyrical writer, but he also has the ability to grasp history and cull together existing texts.  When I gave him a wish list of the Latin and Nahua verses I felt most drawn to, he did a wonderful job in making it all work.”

The Requiem also includes “a substantial role for the chorus that sings, even if just a few lines, in every movement. The chorus is very much like a Greek chorus, offering a mix of philosophical, spiritual, and dramatic commentary throughout.”

Musically, the Requiem is divided into seven movements, which have both familiar Latin titles such as “Dies Irae” as well as Nahua ones, including the opening “Cuicatl de Malinche” (Song of Malinche) which features the soprano soloist. Characteristic of her immediate and eclectic musical style, Frank describes the Requiem’s musical language as “a freely tonal language that is colored by atonality, with readily perceivable rhythmic and melodic shapes. Orchestral colors are quite important to me as they paint a landscape of the New World.”

Reflecting on what she hopes listeners will take away from a performance of her new work, Frank hopes that her music will help “in demystifying and de-demonizing harmful myths,” noting that “Our country’s greatest strength has always been its diversity.”

“I have long been drawn to mythology and folklore with its frequently close ties to spirituality; and freely confess that from time to time, I witness an event or visit a place or meet a person whose very incandescence gives me pause,” she added, reflecting on the spiritual associations of the Requiem genre. “It is perhaps from this place that I chose to honor those who have gone before us not simply in a piece entitled ‘Memorium’ but ‘Requiem.’”

See the world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s Conquest Requiem May 5, 6 & 7 at Jones Hall. >>Get tickets

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The Krajewski Legacy

Principal POPS Conductor Michael Krajewski is approaching his final Rocky-accompanied entrances onto the Jones Hall stage. Following 17 seasons and hundreds of Houston Symphony concerts, Mike will step down from the position at the end of the 2016-17 season after bringing unparalleled enthusiasm, creative programs, exciting musical arrangements and his wry wit to the Houston Symphony’s BBVA Compass POPS series. 

Michael Krajewski, Houston Symphony Principal POPS Conductor

Michael Krajewski, Houston Symphony Principal POPS Conductor

Since joining the Houston Symphony family in 2000, Mike has earned a special place in the hearts of musicians and Symphony patrons alike. Allan and Jean Quiat, longtime POPS series subscribers, are big fans who remember Mike’s first concerts as Principal POPS Conductor. As they recently reflected, “It has been wonderful to experience some of the unique programs Mike has crafted by creatively pulling together artists and genres, like Midtown Men and Cirque de la Symphonie.”

Indeed, Cirque de la Symphonie—the high-flying cirque-meets-orchestra concept—was conceived and brought to life by Mike and Cirque President and Managing Director Alex Stretlsov. In 2005, when the troupe was new on the performing scene, Alex approached Mike in hopes of performing with the orchestra.  

Mike led the Cirque artists through the initial challenges of developing the concept, making himself available to suggest ideas and provide advice. “Though Mike was initially skeptical about the idea of artists flying over the heads of an orchestra while they were playing, he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He helped us develop the program, and our very first concert as a company was with the Houston Symphony in 2006.” Cirque de la Symphonie has continued performing with orchestras worldwide over the past 11 years.  

Mike with the cast of Cirque de la Symphonie

Mike with the cast of Cirque de la Symphonie

Together with Houston Symphony artistic staff, Michael Krajewski has developed many other brand-new, highly creative programs throughout his tenure with the orchestra, including UK Rocks, Bond and Beyond, Classic Soul, I Love a Piano and The Sounds of Simon and Garfunkel. Another audience favorite, PaintJam, brought speed-painter Dan Dunn to Jones Hall at the end of the 2014-15 season. Mike led the orchestra as Dunn painted huge canvases live to the sounds of the orchestra. Mike also developed Very Merry Pops, which has been a beloved holiday tradition for the past 16 years. 

The Houston Symphony POPS series, soon to be taken over by Principal POPS Conductor Designate Steven Reineke, is now widely respected as one of the foremost Pops programs in the American orchestra landscape. Mike’s energy and innovation have impacted Pops programming across the nation, as many of his original shows have found their way from Houston to other orchestras. 

“Mike has always been at the forefront of recognizing that popular Pops programming needs to have a consistently fresh appeal,” Stretlsov said. “His innovations have attracted more and more patrons to the music hall. His willingness to bring Cirque to Houston in 2006 is an example of that.”

Mike enjoys some repartee with Santa himself at Very Merry Pops.

Mike enjoys some repartee with Santa himself at Very Merry Pops.

Krajewski’s conducting style, described by Pink Martini front-woman Storm Large as “controlled fireworks,” is an essential element of his unforgettable, one-of-a-kind stage presence. Of his love for music, she added, “Mike simply loves music. His exuberance, although understated, is palpable and infectious.”

Whether leading a concert of John Williams’ blockbuster scores or humorously demonstrating the use of the whip during “Sleigh Ride” at Very Merry Pops, there has never been a dull moment in Mike’s 17 years onstage with the Houston Symphony. 

And then, of course, there is Mike’s trademark sense of humor, as much a part of his presence as the baton and the score. Many generous patrons share the same sentiment as Houston Symphony Principal Percussionist Brian del Signore, who said he will miss Mike’s easy-going style. “Mike’s legacy,” said Brian, “will be great jokes with great music.”

Successful Houston Symphony marketing and fundraising campaigns, which have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the organization, have been centered on Mike. Although the Symphony musicians, staff and—most importantly—audiences of Houston will certainly miss Mike’s frequent presence at Jones Hall, his time with the Houston Symphony has made a lasting mark on the city, community and hearts of all who have had the privilege of working with him or hearing one of his concerts.

When asked to share any final words on her memories or experiences with Mike, Storm Large took the words out of everyone else’s mouth: “I just love that guy.”

Be a part of Mike’s final concerts as Houston Symphony Principal Pops Conductor: Bond & Beyond and Classic Broadway. Visit for details.

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20 Questions with NASA Engineer Kobie Boykins

A mechanical engineer by training, Kobie Boykins has worked on projects from Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rovers to Ocean Surface Topography Mission over more than ten years at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On Tuesday, April 18, 2017, Boykins comes to Jones Hall to share his amazing stories and give us the latest updates on travel to Mars. Get to know one of NASA’s most brilliant engineers with these fun questions!

Rich Rainen order 109700 management and actuator team inspecting MSL Actuators Kobe Boykins photog: Dutch Slager

Kobie Boykins poses in a clean room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Houston Symphony: What’s one thing most people wouldn’t know about being a NASA engineer?

Kobie Boykins: It truly is an AWESOME job!

HS: If you could go back in time and meet one person, who would it be?

KB: Wow, as I think about this there are so many people that come to mind. If I could only pick one, I think it would be Leonardo da Vinci, but Jesus, I don’t know how I could pass up on him.

HS: What is your biggest dream?

KB:  To see humans travel in space like in Star Trek, and it has to be on the USS Enterprise.

HS: What is your spirit animal?

"...and it has to be on the USS Enterprise."

“…and it has to be on the USS Enterprise.”

KB:  Dolphin.

HS: Which superhero’s powers would you most like to have?

KB:  Professor X.

HS: What’s your favorite fictional robot?

KB:  DATA then Wall-E. I am sure there are others, Big Hero 6…

HS: What’s something that scares you?

KB:  Not being able to act like a kid…

HS: Describe one of the topics you’ll cover at this event in three words.

KB:  The bad Sister.

HS: What gets on your nerves?

KB:  Neurons?

HS: What are you most proud of?

"...there is also that hardware on Mars that is very cool."

“There is also that hardware on Mars that is very cool.”

KB:  Being a father, brother, and a son. There is also that hardware on Mars that is very cool.

HS: What is your favorite place in the world?

KB:  Tahiti.

HS: What is the last book you enjoyed reading?

KB:  Re-read of the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn.

HS: What is the last movie or TV show you enjoyed watching?

KB:  Love The Blacklist.

HS: Name one person who inspires you.

KB:  My mother.

HS: If you had to have a job in a different field, what would it be?

KB:  Physiologist or Sociologist. I love learning about people and how their minds work.

HS: What’s one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?

I cry every time, TRULY.

“I cry every time, TRULY.”

KB:  I am a sucker for good love stories. My favorite love-story movie is The Notebook. I cry every time, TRULY.

HS: If you were a robot, what would be your purpose?

KB:  To seek out new life, new civilizations, to boldly…make everyone love science and engineering!

HS: What scientific discovery would you most like to see?

KB:  Picture of another Earth-like planet around another star.

HS: What’s one quality you look for in all your friends?

KB:  Intelligence, trustworthiness, love of life, honesty—see I can’t follow directions.

HS: Where would you go if you could go anywhere in the universe?

KB: Honestly, I can think of a lot of places, but I really like right where I am. With my wife, my kids, my friends, my family, and the work I get to do, this is the best time and place in the universe.

Don’t miss Kobie Boykins at Exploring Mars: The Next Generation, part of our National Geographic Live! speaker series. Get tickets and more info here.

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Cellists Brawl at Symphony Hall: Yo-Yo Ma vs. Brinton Smith

Scandal has rocked the Houston Symphony after an anonymous source leaked disturbing photos that appear to depict a physical confrontation between Houston Symphony Principal Cellist Brinton Averil Smith and world-renowned cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma.

From left to right: Brinton Smith and Yo-Yo Ma

From left to right: Brinton Smith & Yo-Yo Ma

The attack is alleged to have occurred after Ma’s sold-out, one-night-only appearance with the Houston Symphony last February. The cause of the altercation appears to have been a love-triangle centered on Petunia, Ma’s primary performing instrument.

Petunia was built by Domenico Montegnana in Venice in 1733, and is valued at US $2.5 million. The name “Petunia” was suggested by a student Ma met at a school event in Salt Lake City, and has stuck ever since. “She might be 284 years old, but she is the most beautiful cello I’ve ever seen,” confessed Smith. “After hearing Yo-Yo Ma play her, I was overcome with jealousy. I knew Petunia and I were meant to be together.”

Sources inside the Symphony have confirmed that after the concert Smith secretly stole Petunia from Ma’s cello case and replaced it with his own. The subterfuge was revealed at an exclusive post-concert banquet when Ma recognized the distant sound of a cello coming from another room. Leading a train of high-profile donors and VIPs, Ma followed the sound only to discover Smith with Petunia.

Ma and Petunia

Ma and Petunia

When confronted, Smith lashed out, initiating an intense brawl fueled by caviar and Veuve-Clicquot. “Music is a passionate art form,” explained Houston Symphony CEO Mark Hanson. “Musicians are passionate people, and sometimes that passion extends beyond the stage. We shouldn’t blow these sorts of things out of proportion.”

Others, however, have remarked on the extraordinary nature of the incident. “We’ve had donor events with carnival dancers; we’ve turned Jones Hall into a wine cave; we’ve had an Academy Award-winning movie star narrate Peter and the Wolf; but nothing like this has ever happened. The only thing that comes close is the rumored pistol duel between our concertmaster and Leopold Stokowski at the 1956 Opening Night Gala,” mused Symphony Board Development Committee Chair Jerry Simon. “To be fair, I’ve been told that Stokowski’s tempi were often unorthodox.”

"When confronted, Smith lashed out..."

“When confronted, Smith lashed out…”

After some struggle, the two cellists were separated and the instruments returned to their rightful owners. “Despite this aberrant behavior, Mr. Ma has assured us that he has no hard feelings toward the Houston Symphony and looks forward to playing with us again someday,” said Senior Artistic Advisor Aurelie Desmarais.

Comforted by members of the cello section, Smith later came to his senses and apologized for the scene, attributing his momentary madness to the stress of preparing for his upcoming revival of the Castelnuovo-Tedesco Cello Concerto. Not all of his fellow musicians were so understanding, however. “I don’t know what all the fuss was about,” commented Co-Concertmaster Eric Halen. “Who cares about cellos anyway?”

Happy April Fool’s Day from the Houston Symphony!

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