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Sean Martinfield, ContributorWriter, Musician

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ – Emil de Cou leads the SF Symphony Orchestra this week, 5/13–5/15

04/12/2017 06:25 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2017












Conductor Emil de Cou returns to Louise M. Davies Hall to lead the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in three screenings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, beginning Thursday 5/13 through Saturday 5/15. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film features Harrison Ford in his first appearance as “Indiana Jones” and co-stars Karen Allen (Marion), Paul Freeman (Dr. René Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), and Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich). The film gathered five Academy Awards (1982) including Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Effects-Visual Effects; and a Special Achievement Award for sound effects editing. John Williams was nominated for Best Music, Original Score – but lost to Vangelis for Chariots of Fire. However, Williams won for Best Music from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films and took the Grammy Award for Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special. “I think John Williams is the greatest composer in film history,” said Emil de Cou.

“He is so masterful at playing on the audiences’ emotions, on suspending moments – making something pop-out and hit you at just the right time or making you cry with something very poignant. It’s not just the famous themes from Raiders that people know, it’s also the connecting music and the atmospheric music. For example, when the Nazis are about to open the ark which then releases what are, for them, flying demons. Williams’ actual film score looks like the most modern up-to-date music. He will use several different harmonies at once – as in the opening sequence which is quite dissonant. As late 20th century concert music, the score is incredibly modern, advanced, and sophisticated. The theme for the ark sounds like a chorale or a hymn going from minor into major. When the spirits fly out of the ark, there is a cascading of strings and harp going up and down with woodwinds. You get the ark theme – which you have heard from the very beginning of the film. So, it’s planted in your memory. It then becomes this gigantic explosion of sound as the spirits are running amuck.”

When ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov was the Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre [1980-89], he brought on Emil de Cou to conduct. Following that, Emil became the Music Director for San Francisco Ballet. He served eight years as the Associate Conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra and since 2011 has been Music Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. Now a resident of San Francisco with partner, conductor Leif Bjaland, Emil and I found a lot of common ground in our passion for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake(currently at San Francisco Ballet) and, like a lot of folks, our early introductions to Classical music through Disney’s Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty.

“My first big job was with American Ballet Theatre. I used to come on tour here every year to the War Memorial Opera House. I love being in that building and San Francisco Ballet is incredible. You learn a lot about the craft of conducting working in theatre – musical theatre, ballet, opera, and film – that you won’t really get as a straight-up symphony conductor. It’s a different take on conducting, equally valid with anything else. It is unique to those specific art forms. Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty are both great films. I know so many musicians and music lovers who grew up in places more far-flung than I did as a kid born in Los Angeles. Fantasia was an entrée into hearing all that stuff, let alone experiencing its incredible imagery. That film changed my life.”

“I conducted a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark last summer with the National Symphony at Wolf Trap – which holds 7,000 people! It sold-out three weeks in advance. Nothing in my seventeen years at Wolf Trap ever sold-out three weeks in advance. Before that I conducted four performances of it in San Antonio, again with packed houses. The film is now thirty-six years old. It’s amazing. The first famous theme you hear is in the film’s prologue which sets up Indiana’s character. As he escapes from the natives throwing spears and then boards the seaplane about to take off – we hear the entire theme. Everyone at Wolf Trap spontaneously erupted into screaming cheers. People have such knowledge and affection for this movie and for composer John Williams. It’s his music that makes it a modern day classic. I’ve done Back to the Future several times, also E.T. These are more than just movies, they are a part of our lives. For the older generation it was the Wizard of Oz and Casablanca. And for young people trying to watch a film on their iPhone? I’m old enough to remember my parents taking me to Drive-In movie theatres! But to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on a large screen that is hanging above a symphony orchestra – and to experience the music like you’ve never heard before? It’s a hair-raising adventure!”

“I don’t use a click track, which is how most films are co-ordinated. I’m watching the information on my screen – colored lines that go across it about every thirty seconds or so. It’s very tricky. For example, as the spirits fly back into the ark and the lid slams shut – that happens within half-seconds. To co-ordinate this as I’m watching the movie and the orchestra is watching me – because they can’t hear or see what’s happening on the screen – all these things must line-up in order to produce that powerful effect. The truck/car chase is the film’s longest continuous piece of music. It’s all fast and all very difficult to play. Likewise, when Indy shoots the Arab swordsman brandishing a sword and ready to chop him into pieces – all those bits of comic music must happen exactly to the half-second. If it’s not co-ordinated, it isn’t funny and will not have the same impact.”

I asked Emil about his job at Pacific Northwest Ballet. “If you were talking to a class of 7th graders, how would you describe the differences between a symphonic conductor and a ballet conductor – playing the same piece?”

“Swan Lake is one of my absolute favorite pieces of music theatre, also Carmina Burana. And the great ballets – works such as Petrouchka, Coppelia, Rite of Spring, Sleeping Beauty, etc. They must be performed the way the composers had them in mind. All of this music can be taken out of context, played in concert, and you can certainly enjoy that experience. But it’s like watching Raiders of the Lost Ark without the musical score. It’s not what was intended. I must work with the dancers – a lot. I would not be doing them a service by just staring at them and their feet. I must conduct the music the way the composer meant it to be heard.

“I believe there is a good parallel between The Wizard of Oz and Swan Lake. Everybody recognizes the famous B-minor theme that occurs throughout the ballet. At the end – when Rothbart is defied by the power of the love between the Prince and Odette who kill themselves and thus free all the swans from the curse – Tchaikovsky puts in this long scale which moves that familiar theme into a major key. Up until then we have not heard it in a major key. The result is thrilling – a grabs-your-heart moment. It certainly does that for me when I’m in the theatre. But then – I’m such a sucker for this stuff.”

“I’ve studied the score of The Wizard of Oz like it was a thesis. There are two themes which you hear over and over – ‘Over the Rainbow’ whenever Dorothy talks about going back to Kansas, along with a fragment from the song, ‘Home, Sweet Home’ [by Henry Bishop] which contain the lyrics, ‘Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.’ Right at the end of the film when Dorothy says, “there’s no place like home” – Herbert Stothart [conductor and arranger] puts both themes together. We hear them in harmony, maybe without even noticing. That’s what makes this moment poignant and unforgettable.”

I offered that there may be a lot of first-time viewers at these screenings, particularly young people born after the film’s release in 1981 and those who have never seen the film on a large screen.

“When I did Jurassic Park, there were a lot of families who made a big event out of it, the kids wearing dinosaur t-shirts. People were excited before they got through the door. From the start, the whole audience was on the same page emotionally. I know that at Davies Hall people are going to have a better time than they could ever imagine – hearing a great orchestra playing one of the greatest scores in film history. It’s a perfect alignment of everything. It could turn-on a lot of people to orchestras, to classic films and film music. Aside from being just an entertainment, Raiders of the Lost Ark has a powerful force behind it. Just look at us!”

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