Erik Ochsner conducts immersive music, Star Wars:The Empire Strikes Back

Interview réalisé par Alain Brunet

renseignements supplémentaires

Unlike the hardcore classical music lovers, some other fans consider that film music is the classical music of our times. For sure, Hollywood film music draws from the Romantic and Post-Romantic period, and has more success than contemporary music composers for obvious reasons. Since a few years, many experiences of  symphonic music performances with film projections in real time is 

From conducting small ensembles to symphony orchestras, he built his strong reputation, and one of his trademarks is leading orchestras in Live to Projection film concerts. Erik Ochsner is definitely one of the leading film-orchestra conductors in the world.

He has been Principal Touring Conductor of La La Land Live in Concert, he has conducted 50 performances of Justin Hurwitz’s Academy Award and Grammy Award winning score. He conducted the world premiere of Mary Poppins in Concert at the Sydney Opera House, Love Actually with the San Francisco Symphony, Beauty and the Beast in Concert in Taiwan and Poland, Back to the Future, Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek (2009), and Star Trek Into Darkness. Ochsner premiered The Music of Star Wars with the National Arts Center Orchestra in Ottawa, he has been Music Director and conductor of the 2017 Opera America New Works Showcase and was a Guest Conductor at the Nanjing (China) Forest Music Festival. 

More recently, he led performances of Star Wars in Concert: Episode 4: A New Hope with the Montreal FILMharmonique. Upcoming performances in Montreal will involve him as the conducter of Star Wars in Concert, Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back, presented 3 times at the Place des Arts (Wilfrid-Pelletier), next Friday and Saturday.

Ochsner is also Founder and Music Director of SONOS Chamber Orchestra. Highly educated in music, he attended The Pierre Monteux School, he is also a graduate of the Ivy League Dartmouth College.  He is Finnish-American dual citizen. From New York City where he lives, he talks about his next challenge in Montreal.

PAN M 360: We observe that live film music for symphony orchestras attracts more attention from an audience that would not come to symphony houses to hear classical repertoire. What is your own perception of this phenomenon? 

ERIK OCHSNER: You know, I’m fully classically trained, my goal in life was to become an opera conductor, which is not the case today. But, in a way, I’m conducting works for a different kind of total performance. And we always have new audiences coming to see these films with orchestras. And we always hear comments from amazed viewers like, “Oh, I didn’t know an orchestra was that big, or I didn’t know how it worked.” 

PAN M 360: How are you perceived by the classical community?

ERIK OCHSNER: Some purists on the classical side still think it’s a bad idea to play film music. I think that we artists need an audience. And by offering these concerts, we continue to serve our community. There are people who only come to the concert to hear Beethoven and the great repertoire, and that’s fine. Now we also have people who come to hear film music performed by great orchestras. So I don’t think it’s a loss or a setback for anyone.

PAN M 360: One could argue that the audience for symphonic film music does not systematically migrate to the large repertoire after having had a concert experience. Why is that?

ERIK OCHSNER: Yes, many people will not return to a symphonic concert other than a film score. People recognize symphonic music from their everyday lives. They identify that music that was in a commercial, when in fact it was Vivaldi. That’s why: parents today are not really interested in classical music because their parents didn’t introduce them to it. My own parents introduced me to it, and I loved it. So our duty is to inform and educate. Invite the public to conferences, encourage them to read the program notes. We must not ignore the phenomenon while being aware that we cannot force anyone to take the step towards the great repertoire.

PAN M 360: We can also guess that you find real qualities in the musical works composed for the cinema.

ERIK OCHSNER: Yes. I can’t speak about all film composers but I know, for example, that John Williams is a genuine post-romantic and also modern composer but you will also find more contemporary passages in his work, even if they are not dominant. Yes, film music is often a tribute to composers of the past but… also can have elements of atonal contemporary music. That said, Williams keeps returning to his favorite post-romanticism, that of Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst, etc. Otherwise, you know, it wouldn’t work. In 50 years it might be very different, but not now, because people have not been educated to feel comfortable with the “serious” repertoire of the last 75 years.

PAN M 360: Have you ever met John Williams to discuss your symphonic performances?

ERIK OCHSNER: No, I’ve never met him, although I’ve had discussions with other composers like Shameer Tandon, Howard Shore, Justin Hurwitz or Michael Giacchino, but I’ve never met John Williams, of whom I’ve conducted several scores. Of course, I’ve been told what his expectations are: he wants to get a great sound on stage, a great quality of execution.  But he doesn’t plan anything. A local orchestra decides, hey, we want to play music from a filler and has to negotiate with the rights company for that music. In the case of Star Wars, the John Williams music is owned by Walt Disney, so if you want to do concerts with the Star Wars music, you need the agreement of the license managers of all those movies around the world. A team will then have to go to the concert venue, make sure the screen size is right, that the projector is powerful enough, and that the orchestra is serious. For the conducting, John Williams approved a list of potential conductors and I’m on that list. Apparently, he and Disney like what I do.

PAN M 360: Have you ever conducted in Montreal?

ERIK OCHSNER: Yes I conducted the music from the La La Land soundtrack as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival, I think it was in 2017. With GFN Productions in Montreal, we were supposed to do The Empire Strikes Back in 2020 and then 2021 but the pandemic decided otherwise and we are finally back in 2022. 

PAN M 360: How do you approach the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back?  Is there a Disney recipe to follow?

ERIK OCHSNER: Disney and John Williams have established a protocol. So if a producer is interested in a particular track, each track has its own technical specification, which specifies the size of the screens, the quality of the projectors, the orchestra instrumentation, the number of flutes for example. This way, Disney can figure out how much money the company will make from each show. It’s still a business, whereas the classical world operates as a non-profit enterprise. It is fair to say that these film projects are considered profit-making enterprises.

PAN M 360: You often deal with freelance orchestras. How can you ensure quality in performance? How do you make sure that freelancers can be a cohesive whole?ERIK OCHSNER: I don’t audition players. Instead, I’ll talk to musicians I trust and ask them for their recommendations. When all the musicians in each section get together, many of them know each other because they’ve played together a lot. I want it to be friendly, I want it to be fun for the musicians I hire. Anyway, they work well together in general, it seems to be nice. And that’s exactly the feeling I had working with the musicians that were brought together for the FILMharmonique  Orchestra. They are very good players. And yes, I observe that there are many excellent musicians in Montreal and Quebec. Obviously, they all know each other and the chemistry works in that context.


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