The Kansas City Symphony is mixing a different kind of magic into its performances this week.
Through Saturday, the orchestra is performing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Concert” while the film plays on a giant screen behind the musicians.
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I would say almost all my colleagues think it’s super fun — especially if you love the movie,” said Adam De Sorgo, assistant principal oboe (and Harry Potter fan). “But even if Harry Potter is not your jam, there’s still such great music in this film. It’s fun to play.”
The symphony has performed several of these movie-themed concerts over the years. The first was in 2013, with music from Alfred Hitchcock movies as snippets of the films played. Later that year, the symphony performed its first full-length score accompaniment with “The Wizard of Oz.”
Jason Seber, the symphony’s assistant conductor, has wielded the baton for a few such concerts over the years, from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Home Alone,” but he’s serving as the cover conductor, i.e. backup, for this week’s performances.
“They take a long time to learn as the conductor — you really need to know all the ins and outs of the score and the tempo changes,” he said. “And it’s difficult for the musicians, as well. You have to constantly be on your guard. And just be really aware and in the moment.”
Before rehearsals began Tuesday, guest conductor Sarah Hicks warned musicians the film would wait for no one. The tempo of the main theme would change throughout, and musicians needed to play softer than the music was written.
“I love John Williams,” she told them, “but it tends to be thickly orchestrated, so let’s be really aware of sound in this one.”
In other words, don’t drown out the movie. The film is shown with subtitles as a precaution.
“When they originally record the soundtrack, of course, they can turn it down as low as they want, but with a live orchestra, you can only do so much,” Seber said. “The people back at the soundboard are doing some work, but as the conductor, you’re also being aware of the balance between the orchestra and the dialogue. It’s a lot more difficult when you’re doing it live.”
Seber said the live orchestra performance shows just how much detail goes into filmmaking.
“I think that’s one of the No. 1 comments I hear from people: ‘I didn’t realize how much incredible music was actually in there,’ ” he said. “Especially mood music underscoring a scene. Not the big dramatic moments, but the more sensitive moments.”
The film “Score: A Film Music Documentary,” set to open in Kansas City later this summer, features interviews with dozens of composers about the necessary role of music in filmmaking — from Wurlitzer organs playing over silent films to drown out the clickety-clack of projectors to the “Rocky” theme and beyond. It’s a fascinating film and must-viewing for movie-lovers.
Director Matt Schrader, speaking by phone from Los Angeles the other day, reiterated composer Hans Zimmer’s point from “Score” that movies have helped orchestras remain vital.
“There are things an orchestra can do that no other set of instruments can do,” Schrader said. “It’s evolved over time, and it’s slowly become the perfect tool to express this emotion and that emotion and triumph and sadness.”
Schrader said while Williams’ Harry Potter score may not have been pivotal in the history of film, it is still extremely well-known.
“It is a really big score,” he said. “It’s one that people remember because of the books connection; they were halfway decent films, and now there are theme parks.”
For De Sorgo, the music shares many commonalities with other pieces the symphony plays.
“It’s not much different from playing a Rachmaninoff symphony,” he said. “There’s equal amounts of complexity. There’s equal amounts of color. And you get the added benefit of the music telling a story.”
It also takes some work outside the concert hall.
“We all get our books far ahead of time and do our practicing and what we call ‘woodshedding’ at home,” he said. “Then you get into rehearsal with everybody else, and it’s just a matter of putting it all together and making sure things coordinate among members of the orchestra and the film.”
Cellist Meredith McCook grew up with the Harry Potter books and films.
“I’ve seen all the movies and read all the books many times,” she said. “I have distinct memories of going to the theater and thinking, ‘Whoa, this music is amazing.’ I was quite young at the time, but it has a lot of good memories.”
Both McCook and De Sorgo also were excited at the idea of getting to play “Sorcerer’s Stone” because it meant playing more John Williams music.
“John Williams always gives the orchestra a lot of wonderful things to play and a lot of challenging things to play,” De Sorgo said. “As I was looking at the music ahead of time, I think the biggest technical challenge is the Quidditch match. A lot of fast notes. I’m going to fasten my seat belt and see how fast I can play it.”
The Kansas City Symphony performs “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in concert at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday at Helzberg Hall in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. See kcsymphony.org or call 816-471-0400.
More movie concerts
▪ Sept. 8 and 10: “Screenland at the Symphony: Star Trek Into Darkness”
▪ Oct. 31: “Screenland at the Symphony: Nosferatu,” featuring organist Dorothy Papadakos
▪ Dec. 22 and 23: “Disney in Concert: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas”
▪ Feb. 15-17, 2018: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in Concert”