Thursday, 26 September 2019 14:42

Soundtracks Onstage: Local symphonies beat surround sound by scoring films live

Written by  Megan Sarnacki
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The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra playing alongside "Empire Strikes Back." The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra playing alongside "Empire Strikes Back." Courtesy Photo

Technology has given us a million ways to watch movies at home, not to mention incredible sound systems that make you feel like you’re sitting in a theater of your own. No matter how advanced our tech gets, though, nothing will ever compare to hearing a soundtrack performed in real time.

“If you watch Star Wars on DVD, it is going to be the same today, tomorrow, next week and in a year. But if you have a live orchestra playing that music, it is a unique, historical event. We have different players putting their own individual artistry into what’s going on,” said John Varineau, associate conductor for the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Whether it evokes excitement, grief or suspense, soundtracks provide viewers with an emotional guide to a film. But with streaming services growing in popularity, symphonies across West Michigan want to reconstruct the act of watching films by creating a space for the community to come together as one large, engaged audience.

“There’s always an extra spark of creativity that happens live. There’s a certain sense of exhilaration that patrons can feel from the stage,” said Daniel Brier, resident conductor for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.

As conductors, Varineau and Brier note the most challenging task is ensuring the orchestras stay in line with the film score.

“A movie doesn’t wait for a conductor,” Varineau said. “There are times when the musicians will feel like they want to take a little bit of time here or push forward here, but we can’t do that. We have to stay with the movie. It’s a very different beast, but also a testament to the flexibility and expertise of the musicians since they can be doing Beethoven symphony one night and a movie soundtrack the next night.”

Because each performance is live, the day and location can also impact the audience’s experience.

“Even though they’re playing the same notes, it’s going to sound different if you hear it in St. Louis, Detroit or New York,” Varineau said. “From my own experience, there’s going to be things that I do differently today than what I did yesterday or the way I’ll do it tomorrow.”

But the most distinctive aspect to these performances, according to Brier, is the local component.

“Our musicians are in our community, teaching, performing and working in many different ways. It's really special when you get to share that with someone that you know, and if you don't know any of our wonderful musicians, it's a great opportunity to get to know some new people in town,” Brier said.

For Varineau, this connection between the symphony and the audience enhances the creative lenses in which art resides.

“Art is people communicating to people. As an audience member, you are hearing art by people who live in town with you. It’s almost like the movie itself becomes secondary,” he said.

Each with its own season of shows, the Grand Rapids Symphony and Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra envision these live soundtrack performances as a way for the community to not only bond over their favorite films, but also notice that shared experiences connect communities on a deeper level.

“Music enriches our community,” Brier said. “When we do these movies, we connect with the wide cross section of our community — people from all ages and backgrounds — coming together to enjoy a night of fantastic music-making and a wonderful movie.

“It’s always a very special feeling when we finally get on stage and share this experience together.”

Grand Rapids Symphony 2019-2020 Movie Soundtrack Season

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
DeVos Performance Hall
Oct. 18, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 19, 2 p.m.

DeVos Performance Hall
Oct. 31, 7:30 p.m.

Home Alone
DeVos Performance Hall
Nov. 12, 7 p.m.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
DeVos Performance Hall
Feb. 21, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 22, 2 p.m.

DeVos Performance Hall
Mar. 20, 7:30 p.m.
Mar. 21, 7:30 p.m.
Mar. 22, 3 p.m.

For tickets, visit or call (616) 454-9451

Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra 2019-2020 Movie Soundtrack Season

Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Miller Auditorium
Oct. 11, 8 p.m.

Icarus at the Edge of Time
Chenery Auditorium
Oct. 20, 3 p.m.

How to Train Your Dragon
Miller Auditorium
Jan. 25, 3 p.m.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Miller Auditorium
Apr. 17, 8 p.m.

For tickets, visit or call (269) 349-7759

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