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The Toronto Symphony’s The Wizard of OZ… a hit for both young and old!

The Wizard of Oz with Live Orchestra

Film showings with live orchestra are new to me. When I saw that this year’s calendar for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra offered four box-office smash hits, I had to try out the idea and see for myself the cause of all the excitement. It was an easy decision to choose The Wizard of Oz for my first foray into this medium that has been growing in popularity over the past decade. I have always loved this film, and on Family Day weekend, I could bring my granddaughter and discover first-hand the reaction of an eight year old.

What I didn’t expect was that my granddaughter Sally knew the film better than I did. My memory of the details had faded over the years. She reminded me that Toto was the name of the dog, had no trouble remembering the qualities lacking in the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and assured me that she would not be overly frightened by the Wicked Witch. We came into the city on the GO-Train singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow. It was a day of firsts for both us; for Sally, it was her first time in Roy Thomson Hall and her first time to hear the TSO.

From the opening Metro Goldwyn Meyer lion, the sounds of the orchestra brought the film to life like never before. Throughout the film, whether the orchestral sounds underscored dialogue or accompanied the solos and choruses, there was a vibrancy and richness that doesn’t come through in either a theatre setting or at home.

It has been a remarkable achievement for producer John Goberman to have put this orchestral score together and for guest conductor Emil de Cou to keep the music and the film in sync. Firstly, the original score and parts were sent to landfill during the seventies when MGM was clearing out their studios. The editor of The Journal of Film Music once interviewed the garbage truck driver who dumped the trash in a landfill site, soon to become a golf course in Los Angeles. The driver told the editor at which golf hole the musical score could be found under tons of soil. The music was lost forever. Fortunately there was a ‘short score’ for the film found and from it and by listening to the music very carefully, the orchestration was re-assembled. It was also fortuitous that in 1938, the studio had laid down the orchestral track separately from the voice track, something that had never been done before. And so it became possible to present the film with live orchestra. But not so fast; it required a conductor who could learn the exact tempi of the music so that when superimposed on the film, it would sync perfectly. That is where the genius of Emil de Cou took over.

De Cou has conducted live performances of The Wizard of Oz and many other films since he first began performing them with the National Symphony Orchestra/Wolf Trap close to twenty years ago. At first, it was just short film segments as part of pops concerts, but soon graduated to full-length feature films. The Wizard of Oz was first performed with live orchestra in 2006. De Cou is passionate about the film and about the idea of bringing a younger demographic to the symphony. It certainly worked yesterday. The hall was filled with families. 

Review by David Richards

​Toronto ON February 19th 2018

For Sally, the concert was as exciting as she had anticipated. In the first half, she said she was glued to the film. In the second, after a bit of coaxing, she let her eyes and ears focus a bit on the orchestra.

For me it was interesting to note how timeless the film is and how relevant to someone of grandparenting age. Nevertheless, it was the music that enthralled me. In a conversation with Emil de Cou, he reminded me to listen for influences of Schumann during the cepia-toned life in Kansas, and later the more Ravel-like impressionistic passages in the land of the Munchkins. The scene of the Good Witch and the Munchkins was reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Great spirit filled the hall!

Whether or not films with live orchestra will transform audiences into life-long symphony subscribers in large numbers remains to be seen but perhaps that’s not the point. As Emil de Cou mentioned to me, this may be a burgeoning new art form.

Coming up on March 21, 22 and 23 will be a performance of Jaws in Concert. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos, will perform the iconic John Williams score live with the film! The heart pounding suspense of this classic thriller will undoubtedly rise to a new level.

Guest Conductor Emil de Cou; Photo courtesy of TSO

The Wizard of Oz; Photo Courtesy of TSO