Avex Classics International’s Maggie O’Herlihy tells AMI about bringing cinematic masterpieces to life with a live orchestra

The Film with Live Orchestra (FwLO) genre, which sees full commercial feature films presented with live orchestra and choir, began in 2008 with the pioneering project, Lord of the Rings in Concert. The show was an instant success and paved the way for the 40 or so feature films which are currently being presented in this way at concert halls across the world.

My work as a FwLO producer with Avex Classics International began in 2012 and our first undertaking was Titanic Live, which premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2014. FwLO was still in its infancy, but the late composer James Horner understood the potential and was instrumental in helping us secure the necessary approvals from the key rights holders and contributors along the way.

Titanic Live encompasses 130 live musicians including key instrumentalists such as uilleann pipes, whistles and solo vocalist. The challenges we faced when creating the show were twofold.

Firstly, the score was not available in any digital format because that software did not exist until the mid-late 90s. Film scores were typically hand written in those days and it took a significant amount of time to decipher what music had been used in what cue from the 25 boxes of music Twentieth Century Fox supplied.

Secondly, James Cameron was very adept at editing sound files and once James Horner had delivered the final master, Cameron made some further edits to the film and picked out stem files from various music cues to match the revised scenes we see in the final picture. There was no road map for these edits, so it took our team of orchestrators and engravers an entire year to reverse engineer and recreate the Titanic score. Of course, Film with Live Orchestra is still a relatively new genre, and nobody imagined that movies would be presented in this way back when Cameron and Horner were creating Titanic.

Once the digital score was completed, a conductor video was built to map out every beat of the score so that conductors could synchronise the live music to film right down to the millisecond. The synchronisation is so precise that on occasion, an audience member will ask whether the orchestra is indeed playing live or if they are simply miming! Titanic Live tours to over twelve countries annually. Once it was up and running, we turned our attention to Milos Forman’s 1984 classic Amadeus, a period drama which encompasses Mozart’s “greatest hits”.

Amadeus Live posed a different set of challenges in that there are multiple opera scenes with up to 12 singers. It is not feasible to bring multiple opera singers on the road with a FwLO show, so we had to find a way to keep the solo vocalists on tape but without the recorded orchestra. As is typical in opera, the soundtrack was recorded with the vocalists and orchestra in the same room so for Amadeus Live to work, we had to find a way to fully isolate the vocal soloists so that the live orchestra can accompany the taped singers. After weeks of painstaking work by Wild Woods in Los Angeles, isolated vocals were achieved without compromising on quality. Amadeus Live now tours to over twenty countries annually and recent highlights include multiple sell out performances by the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony.

Further titles in production include The English Patient Live (Gabriel Yared, composer), which will premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in October 2018, and The Age of Innocence Live (Elmer Bernstein, composer) which will tour in Europe and North America in 2019.

While Film with Live Orchestra is thriving in many major cities throughout the world, there is still untapped potential in terms of secondary markets. One of our goals at Avex Classics International is to bring these shows to smaller cities over the coming years so that audiences everywhere can experience the magic of music performed live to picture.