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WFAE Amplifier Podcast: Bringing Classical to the Big Screen with the Charlotte Symphony

Feb 28, 2019

By the time this interview is released, the film industry will have capped off its awards season with the Oscars. While some focus on the more prominent awards like "Best Actress" or "Best Motion Picture," it's just as interesting to look to the more audio-inclined categories of "Best Original Song" and "Best Original Score." Because music is the heartbeat of film, and music is the color that adds vibrancy to the canvas.

While Christopher James Lees is not a film composer, he is helping bring classical music to the big screen as resident conductor of the Charlotte Symphony. As Lees puts it, the Charlotte Symphony's "film in concert" performances of "Star Wars," "Harry Potter" and "Back to the Future" show that classical music is much more than its reputation of being from "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Rather, classical music is as timely and transformative as ever before.

"Music has continued to evolve since orchestras started wearing white tie and tails. Music is relevant. Its message is relevant." --Charlotte Symphony Resident Conductor Christopher James Lees


Interview Highlights

Credit: Charlotte Symphony


On his first interaction with music:
I think most musicians start really young, and I was no exception. I remember being four years old and waking up one morning hearing my dad play church hymns on our family piano and me stumbling downstairs looking for what was wafting through the house. There's something about the magic of the sound and the magic of hearing it when you're just coming out of a dream. It felt really compelling, it felt like it was really calling me.

I remember caressing the keys and thinking, "How do I unlock this in the same sort of way that I'm hearing?" And the next day, we started lessons. And the week after that, I started more formally. And in college, I got the conducting bug.

On his work as the resident conductor for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra: 
The programs of the Charlotte Symphony in the last couple of years have really expanded and exploded to reach all of the outer rims of [Interstate] 485 and every community within it. I have the great pleasure of conducting our world-class musicians in just about every forum you can imagine, from living musicians and new music readings to brewery concerts... to our "CSO on the Go" programs in South Mecklenburg and concerts at CPCC.

I'm honored and privileged to be the neighborhood face of the orchestra that people can see in their Trader Joe's and in all of their favorite places they like to go. I just happen to show up with an orchestra with me. And so you can come and enjoy live music and be surrounded by this great art, which we think is equally relevant, equally necessary, equally interesting now in Charlotte in 2019 in a pub as it was in high-aristocratic Austria in the 1790s.

Credit: Charlotte Symphony

On classical music's reputation over time: 
I think people for a long time have had this elitist view of classical music, that it exists under glass in these storied concert halls where musicians arrive in formal wear from the 1800s and we really haven't evolved since then.

But the thing is, music has continued to evolve since orchestras started wearing white tie and tails. Music is relevant. Its message is relevant. The communication style, the vehicle, the trimmings, the preening on the exterior of it might change over time, but the messages that we're trying to get across -- the ideals and the wrestling with the big philosophical questions of humanity -- are still the same.

Credit: Charlotte Symphony

On the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's 'film in concert" performances:

This is a really exciting development because it combines an element of performance (the movies) with an element of performance that is lower with awareness and public consciousness (the film score). But when you combine live performance with recorded performance, you get an energy and synergy that (we found at that Charlotte Symphony) creates electricity in the room.

You feel caught up in the rush and the intensity of a live orchestra at the same time that you are sharing a community experience. We really believe that we make the Belk Theater into a living room for those performances.

It shows the mastery of these film composers to use the orchestra, to use the soundtrack as a character in the film. There's so much subtext that comes to life when you hear the music behind the dialogue. The story in the movie is real because the music makes it real.

By Joni Deutsch, WFAE 

Listen to the episode here.