Dec 17, 2015

Conducting a live film score is a lot like conducting the pit orchestra in a ballet.

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Assistant Conductor Nicholas Hersh has done both and will conduct John Williams’ score in a live screening of the film Home Alone. In each case, Hersh said the conductor must have a rock solid sense of tempo to make sure that the music and visuals line up perfectly.

Hersh has watched the movie upwards of 20 times in the last month to help internalize those tempi, but he’ll also be using a system that dates back to the early days of Hollywood. There is a small monitor above his score at the podium.

On that screen is the movie along with a language of visual cues that are somewhat reminiscent of music video games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Before a downbeat to start a new section, a colored bar called a streamer works its way across the screen from left to right. When it reaches the right side of the screen, a colored circle called a punch flashes on screen.

“That system actually dates back to the 1930s and John Williams' teacher Alfred Newman who would literally take the celluloid film and draw on it to create a streaming bar and a hole punch to make a hole in the specific frame,” Hersh said.

There is also a second system called a click track, which visually shows the beat and number of the bar on screen. The conductor has an option of an ear piece to hear those clicks as well, which Hersh said can feel a little robotic and some conductors prefer not to use.

“John Williams, so I hear, is an avid opponent of using the click track system and much prefers the system of streamers and punches that gives you visual cues but also the freedom to phrase and push and pull within each segment between those cues,” he said.

Hersh shows what this system looks like for him and talks about the challenges of performing a live performance of a film score below.