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The TSO is among the world’s best orchestras, and film music has become the thrilling, mainstream space for today’s symphonic music.Jag Gundu/Handout

When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1922 – back then it was called the New Symphony Orchestra – it was mere months after the Berlin cinema premiere of Nosferatu, the silent film by Max Schreck that first put Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the big screen. A century later, the TSO is among the world’s best orchestras, and film music has become the thrilling, mainstream space for today’s symphonic music.

The TSO is marking its 100th season with a special Pops concert dedicated to the sweeping music of the silver screen: 100 Years of Epic Film Scores, a program of original movie music from 1922 to 2022. The world-class orchestra and principal pops conductor Steven Reineke will bring to life famous tunes from Psycho, The Magnificent Seven, The Godfather, Pirates of the Caribbean and the film that can boast the first original recorded soundtrack, 1933′s King Kong.

“I think it’s going to be a neat journey for the audience to go on, to hear that progression of how film scores have changed over the years,” Reineke says.

In the early decades of cinema, composers often came to film directly from the classical tradition. Erich Korngold (The Sea Hawk), Max Steiner (King Kong) and Miklos Rozsa (Ben-Hur) are all Academy-Award winning composers with symphonies, operas, cantatas and choral music in their oeuvres. Same for Bernard Hermann (Psycho), and Nino Rota (The Godfather). Today, the great film composers are the ones who continue to draw from the classical symphonic tradition – even if movie fans may not realize it. Take the work of John Williams, arguably the best known film score composer. The thrum of Darth Vader’s Imperial March, the twinkling Harry Potter theme or those incessant semitones in Jaws – all are examples of leitmotif, a narrative device Richard Wagner invented with his operas that gives specific musical themes to different characters.

And, just like the classical masterpieces, great film scores hold their own as pieces of concert music.

The proof is in the worldwide boom among symphony orchestras – including the San Francisco Symphony and Britain’s Royal Philharmonic – to perform film scores live during screenings. The TSO has been offering such performances for the past decade; this season’s series features Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, Black Panther, Elf and both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

During those performances – which typically sell out – a film is projected onto a large screen. The dialogue is still there but the score has been removed. Instead, the orchestra plays it live. It’s a flex for an orchestra, considering that the original soundtracks were created in a recording studio in short bursts and with plenty of breaks.

“None of these scores were meant to be played in real time, front to back,” Reineke says. “So it’s a Herculean feat to actually do this.”

Precision is crucial: Conductors must learn a film’s soundtrack inside out, and sync every musical phrase, every note, exactly.

“Conducting the films, those are the hardest things I ever do,” Reineke says – even more so than challenging concert music such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. “You’re using both sides of your brain the whole time. A creative side and a very mathematical, analytical side.”

Reineke gets a bit of help from the film itself. He works from a special version that comes with “punches” and “streamers,” visual cues for conductors that go back to the era of silent movies.

“They would punch out a hole in the middle of one tiny square of film, so when the reel was going you get this white dot that would flash very quickly in the middle of the screen,” Reineke says. The white dots act like a silent metronome, previewing the upcoming tempo and counting down the beats until the orchestra should begin.

Streamers work similarly, cuing the conductor with a vertical line cut into the film “that goes from the left side of the screen, crosses the screen, and hits the right side of the screen,” the maestro explains. “When I see it on the left, that’s like a warning. And when it hits the right side of the screen, I need to be exactly somewhere at that point.”

Punches and streamers aren’t fail-safe, though. Performing a live version of a famous film score for eager fans calls for a special level of preparedness.

“People are practising as I speak,” says TSO percussionist David Kent, who has played with the orchestra since 1981 and has more than four decades of experience playing film music. “It’s very challenging for the musicians because it’s going two and a half hours straight, full bore,” Kent says. “It’s going to be very tough, especially on the wind and brass players.”

Still, Reineke and his musicians are set to have at least as much fun with Epic Film Scores as the audience will. “I picked all this music, so I like all of it,” the maestro says. He has a soft spot for John Williams, no surprise, and is excited to feature Rachel Portman’s music from 1996′s Emma, for which she became the first woman to win an original film score Oscar.

For Kent, this concert is “a smorgasbord of high points” for any film buff, music fan or combo of the two. “Of course, it’s great listening to the whole film, but this way you get some of the most memorable, descriptive high points of the music, and they’re all one after another.”

The program will be performed in chronological order, and unlike during the usual film series, nothing will be shown onscreen. “I want the attention on the orchestra, giving respect to the genre of film music and how important it has become in society,” says Reineke, who adds that he is “partial to a lot of stuff in the first half.”

“I think Korngold’s music for The Sea Hawk is great, I love Ben-Hur and The Magnificent Seven. Lawrence of Arabia is one of my favourite scores.”

And what does he love when it comes to the regular film series?

“When we do a movie like E.T., for example, or even Jurassic Park, a lot of people will bring their children – who have never seen it – or their grandchildren. I’m seeing three generations of families there, and they’re showing this to their grandchildren for the very first time.”

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs 100 Years of Epic Film Scores on Oct. 25 and 26; tso.ca