With his opening statement, the conductor John Jesensky made clear, that this concert would be a lot more casual than your average classical concert. He encouraged the audience to have fun, to cheer for their favourite characters and moments in the movie. This was appropriate for a concert set in Berlin’s open air stadium “Waldbühne” on a warm summer night, where thousands of film music enthusiasts and Harry Potter Fans gathered to hear John Williams’ oscar nominated masterpiece performed live by the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg.
A certain tension could be felt as the crowd, including many teenagers and adults in Harry Potter costumes, were waiting for the concert to start. As soon as the orchestra played the famous “Hedwig’s theme” the audience started cheering and continued to do so for the appearances of most characters. Hermione and house Gryffindor seemed to be particularly beloved by the fans, whereas even Draco Malfoy and Slytherin had a couple of eager fans in the audience.
I had the chance to sit in at this concert, got bewitched by the magic of this fantastic soundtrack and talked to the conductor afterwards.
Flawless and on spot
As the conductor, John Jesensky managed to show all the small details of this very diverse score in a new, yet familiar light. The orchestra was very well microphoned and mixed, so there was a very clear and well-balanced sound throughout the movie. It was a delight to listen to the softer and subtle parts of the score because the music was mixed a bit louder than in the films. Jesensky described, ”We wanted to highlight the music, so our music is always mixed a little bit higher, and that’s why we have subtitles as well because sometimes it gets too loud to even hear, but we prefer to hear the music.
And we also boost up the percussion, that normally would be lowered, so that they don’t get in the way of sound effects because it’s part of that score that the maestro wrote and we want to honour that.” This was an excellent choice because it allowed the audience to recognise many mickey-mousing effects, that normally get drowned by the sound effects. So with scenes like Diagon Alley or the Quidditch, it became especially noticeable how rich with musical effects these scenes actually are. The live orchestra and the mix really allowed these parts to stand out.
In this way, many of the parts with harp, marimba, celeste and string pizzicato sounded surprisingly fresh and clear, while still resembling the orchestral sound from the movie. Because of the different mix, some instruments were more prominent than in the movie, which allowed the marimba, the glockenspiel and the chimes to highlight certain musical effects, that would mainly stay in the background otherwise.
Jesensky explained, that he likes to take certain liberties with the interpretation of the score, depending on which orchestra he is performing with:For example some oboists are a lot more detached with their solos and some are very legato with them, so they’re very connected, and I try to stay honest to what Williams originally recorded, but I also want them to be able to express artistically. So I don’t change that much, if they wanna have more separation and it sounds enough like the original, I’ll let them do it. And so it’s like rediscovering the music every single time.
For example some oboists are a lot more detached with their solos and some are very legato with them, so they’re very connected, and I try to stay honest to what Williams originally recorded, but I also want them to be able to express artistically. So I don’t change that much, if they wanna have more separation and it sounds enough like the original, I’ll let them do it. And so it’s like rediscovering the music every single time.
In addition to that, the orchestra doesn’t use a click track, so they are able to perform certain cues always slightly different:
We’re lucky that with John Williams, he actually gives you that space to create that music, those beautiful string lines. When they’re in the forest and they meet the centaurs, there is just several bars with swells and this gorgeous string writing, and I change it every time I conduct it, and the orchestra loves it.
Even after performing this movie score over 70 times, he’s never gotten tired of it, because every performance is slightly different, he said.
While using the same instrumentation as in the film, some small changes had to be made with regards to the size of the location:
When we have room on stage we do use a women choir, 20 people female choir, just like they used in the recording session. When we don’t have room on the stage, we have patches on the synthesiser directly designed by one of our audio engineers, alongside with Williams’s audio engineers. For example the celeste sound that we used is the exact celeste sound that Williams uses, because his engineer gave it to us.
So unfortunately, the Waldbühne didn’t have enough space on stage to make use of a female choir, which did not lessen the quality of the performance. Even not having a live celeste on stage was a strength rather than a weakness of this concert, because the very clear original celeste sound was able to provide that direct, intimate sound known from the movie, a live celeste might not have been able to provide in that way.
Reaching a young audience
With his film music concerts, Jesensky wishes to make young people more comfortable with going to orchestral concerts. In contrast to most concert halls, where the audience is asked to be mostly quiet during the performance, Jesensky wants them to be at ease, to cheer when they feel like and have fun:
I was very intimidated to go see an orchestra concert. I was worried I wouldn’t understand it. It’s my goal as a conductor to bring in new people, who wouldn’t normally go see Mahler or Wagner or Beethoven or Bach. And you get them into the hall and hear what an orchestra sounds like. We have a new generation, that’s come and seen one of their favourite films played with real instruments, real air moving, so they might love the orchestra experience, and then they might come back for Mahler or Wagner or other film concerts, and yeah that’s really one of the best parts.
Ultimately, there will be many more opportunities to experience a Harry Potter movie performed live since Jesensky will be conducting all 8 movies during the next years and when they are back in Germany, I will certainly try to be there.