Exclusive: Harry Potter Film Concert Series conductor Justin Freer on bringing the iconic John Williams score to life for fans

Harry Potter fans worldwide won’t want to miss The Harry Potter Film Concert Series that is performing worldwide, including Florida, which features a full orchestra backing while the entire first movie is projected behind them on a huge HD screen. CineConcerts co-founder and conductor Justin Freer took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with Theme Parks and Beyond about what to expect at the shows, his plans on the presenting all of the Harry Potter films, and to share some insight into this incredible production.

Q: What can Harry Potter fans expect when they go to this show?

Justin Freer: I think one of the most unique aspects of this concert series is now this brand new, first time ever ability for patrons and fans to be thrust into the magic of this film and this music in a very immersive, very large and intimate way. We now have an opportunity to experience the power of this incredibly magical music score by John Williams surrounded by not only 85 musicians in the orchestra, but thousands of other people in the concert hall simultaneously sitting around you, and it elevates the film and the score to a very unique and new communal experience. So I do believe that people have an opportunity now to really experience how powerful this music really is for the film and relive the adventure of Harry and his friends in a very unique way. So it’s a lot of fun and it’s something that you really have to be there to see to believe. It’s very much an in-person experience.

Q: What are the logistics of the show? The entire movie is screened with just the dialogue and special effects while the entire score is played live?

JF: There’s a lot that goes into preparing these projects. It’s a significant undertaking. We leave all the dialogue and the special effects intact in the film as it was in the movie theater and we pull out all the music so that every note is performed live on stage. So we have to reconstruct all of the music score for live performance for the musicians and for the conductor. It comes with a lot of great fun and a lot of preservation effort but that’s one of the reasons why we’ve done this is being afforded the opportunity to preserve and present this magical world that J.K. Rowling has created through the eyes of this particular film, and of course through the eyes and ears and emotions of John Williams and his music score, is a great pleasure.

Q: What was revealed to you when you set up actually reconstructing the score? Were there a lot of things hidden within Williams’ score when you actually sat down to map this whole thing out?

JF: I think with any great music score, whether or not it’s a symphonic score by Gustav Mahler or a ballet by some of the great composers such as Tchaikovsky or even some of the more modern ones by Aaron Copland or a great score by John Williams, I think that when you start to sit down and really study the music it does reveal a lot of things that you otherwise, especially within the context of film, that you very quickly gloss over. That’s because it’s oftentimes in the background or sometimes it’s in the foreground and sometimes it’s in the middle.

I particularly found a lot of really great things in the music that I was only able to discover by studying the notes by themselves and studying the form by itself. But you find that a lot of the music that is underscore — as we call it — in the case of John Williams, it’s always brilliantly written. So to be able to now bring this underscore, bring the foreground music that we all know and everything in between and now putting it all in the foreground as far as the concert stage, that’s what makes it very unique. All of a sudden, this music score is right in front of us and you don’t get that by listening to the CD or get that by going to the movie theater. And you don’t get that by listening to the music perhaps as a concert suite that John has out there just by itself without film. But now married to film, it’s a whole other experience.

Q: Is watching the film in this unique way significantly different than traditionally enjoying it with all the audio mixed together?

JF: It can yes. It’s a very delicate balance in post production. I think one of the things that Chris Columbus, the director of the film, did so magnificently is balance that with his editors, his music editors, his post production sound team and not the least of which was the effort of John Williams. Chris is on record of saying that John’s music really elevates the picture and I think that as some of the producers have said that it brings gravitas to the film. So I think it is a delicate balance and and it is a balance that is delicate still even in this setting. We have a new sound environment in every single concert hall we take this around the world and it’s a great challenge in balancing out the dialogue in a concert hall surrounded by thousands of people with the live music coming off the stage. It’s great fun and without John’s music or J.K. Rowling’s vision, we wouldn’t be able to do this.

Q: Are there any surprises in store for fans and what has the reaction been like so far?

JF: Well you know one of the things that I still pull out from every one of these concerts worldwide is just how many uber fans that have seen this movie in some cases hundreds of times, they are saying all pretty much the same thing. They’re saying, “Wow, we never realized just how powerful the music is. What a great experience it has been now to experience one of the things that I cherished the most growing up or as an adult reading the book and watching the movies and now seeing it again.” It’s been re-presented to them with something completely fresh and new, even though it’s a film that we all know. They can definitely expect to have something new and fresh and unique. As far as surprises, it’s worth noting that we have a wonderful pre-show, a behind-the-scene featurette, that talks about the recording sessions with John Williams and the creative effort that went into writing the score. There’s commentary from the director, producers and actors about his music.

Q: I’m looking at the tour schedule and it seems you’ll be taking on the next Harry Potter film right after this one. How long does this process take to break down the movie and to get it to the point where you can have a show with an orchestra?

JF: It generally depends on the film. Some take more time to restore than others and in the case of the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s of course the oldest of the eight movies so with that comes a certain audiophile quality and having to find the music in the archives. Perhaps not as many of his scores have been digitized, for example. The technical things, there are so many variables that go into this, but definitely it takes several months minimum to put these together. The idea now is that because it’s the Harry Potter Film Concert Series so we’re unraveling all eight movies as we go along. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the beginning of all of this and we will continue this adventure of Harry and his friends through the course of all eight movies and we have Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban coming out later this year so it’s very exciting to begin with this very magical film.

The Harry Potter Film Concert Series continues with shows in Orlando on February 18, 19 as well as in Miami on June 10 (with two performances) at the Adrienne Arsht Center in addition to upcoming shows in Europe and in the USA. For more info and tour dates visit their official site and make sure to read our original article about the concert series.

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