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J. Shane Mercer, Published September 26 2009

F-M Symphony celebrates the music of motion pictures

Nancy Beach, a composer based in Fargo and Los Angeles says a camel walking across the desert doesn’t mean anything until you put the theme from “Lawrence of Arabia” behind it.

The music in a film “transforms everything,” says Beach, who has served as orchestrator for such films as “Star Trek 5,” “Rambo III” and “Leviathan.”

With the transformative power of movie music on its mind, the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra will celebrate a number of works that have made their way into motion pictures as it kicks off its Masterworks concert season today and Sunday with its “Music from Films” performance.

John Miller, director of the North Dakota State University Division of Fine Arts, says that, broadly speaking, the music in a movie “complements the story.”

When it comes to symphonic music, one of the most prominent examples is from the “Star Wars” films. Miller says those movies deal with magnificence and heroism, and the score “makes you feel that.”

“Can you imagine (the scrolling opening words) with anything except the main title theme of ‘Star Wars?’ ” Miller says.

Another classic example of symphonic music in film is director Stanley Kubrick’s use of the powerful and awe-inspiring “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss.

Kubrick was signaling the audience that “this is a signature event that is bigger than any of us,” Beach says.

Similarly, a story about the 1945 film “The lost Weekend,” illustrates the impact that the music in a film can have. The movie’s main character is an alcoholic who hallucinates while going through withdrawal. Beach says the test audience laughed at the character’s behavior in response to the hallucinations when the scene was screened without a score. Beach says director Billy Wilder was “appalled.”

But, when Miklos Rozsa’s score, which Beach describes as “terrifying,” was added, the audience perceived the scene in the manner Wilder intended.

Beach traces the inclusion of music in film back to the days of silent movies in the early 20th century.

In those days, the films themselves may have been silent, but the clunky projectors were not. And a local pianist would play music behind the film to drown out the sound of the projector.

What’s more, Miller believes it can be traced “all the way back to opera, and before then it goes all the way back to songs,” in which the emotional content of the text is enhanced by music.

Of course, like the movies they inform, the range of emotions in film music spans the sea of human experience itself. And this weekend’s “Music from Films” Masterworks concert will reflect some of that range. On one hand, FMSO Executive Director Linda Coates describes George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” from the movie by the same name as “lighter” and “more fun.”

In fact, the piece “calls for tuned car horns,” which they are renting, she says.

On the other hand, Samuel Barber’s beautiful and haunting Adagio for Strings, which has been used in “Platoon” and “Elephant Man,” was once voted by BBC listeners as the saddest classical work ever.

John Corigliano’s “The Red Violin: Chaconne,” based on music from the film “The Red Violin,” and Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor will also be performed.

While presenting a range of interesting and beautiful music, the concert may also serve as an entry point for new faces. Coates hopes the movie connection serves as a way for the symphony to reach new audience members.

“I think part of the appeal is it can reach a much broader audience, folks who may not be that familiar with classical music or maybe don’t consider themselves classical music fans, but feel comfortable with and love great movie music, and (we) thought this might be a wonderful opportunity for folks like that to try out a symphony orchestra,” Coates says.

If you go

  • What: Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra Masterworks I: “Music from Films”

  • When: 8 tonight and 2 p.m. Sunday

  • Where: North Dakota State University Festival Concert Hall

  • Tickets: Tickets can be purchased at the door an hour before the show.


    FMSO features ‘Year of the Violin’

    It’s the “Year of the Violin” for the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, as this year’s Masterworks Concert series features the instrument that has been called the soul of the orchestra.

    Among the highlights of the series will be a performance by internationally-known violinist Midori. And FMSO Concertmaster Benjamin Sung will be featured at two of the concerts. The 2009-2010 Masterworks concert series includes:

  • “Music from Films” featuring Sung, tonight and Sunday.

  • “Carnival Latina” featuring guest conductor Zenaida Romeu, Nov. 14 and 15.

  • “For the Love of the Violin” featuring Midori, Feb. 13 and 14, 2010.

  • “Treasures for Chamber Orchestra” featuring Sung, March 13 and 14, 2010.

  • “An American Celebration” featuring New Americans & Refugees, April 17 and 18, 2010.


    Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734