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The Wizard of Oz Meets the San Francisco Symphony

Reposted from the SF Gate

The San Francisco Symphony is about to go way over the rainbow this Thursday and Friday as it accompanies a screening of the 1939 M.G.M. classic, The Wizard of Oz. Conductor Michael Francis will lead the orchestra throughout the entire film — a technological and artistic challenge that included removing the music track, preserving the vocals, and creating an intricate cuing system which enables the conductor to be in perfect sync with every step down the Yellow Brick Road and back home again.

Preservationists will be happy to know that the film’s original score by M.G.M.’s resident composer and arranger, Herbert Stothart, has been faithfully reconstructed. Somebody tossed out the original manuscript way-way back. The thinking was no one would need it or use it. Considering the orchestra plays virtually non-stop, those pages must have taken up a whole shelf — at least! In 1970, tons of cinematic history got tossed out and about at M.G.M. as the new studio execs sold off the contents of its warehouses filled with superstar wardrobes, period furniture and famous props. “Anyone need a lion costume and a couple o’ pairs o’ these red-sequined shoes? The label says it’s ‘by Adrian‘. Who’s Adrian?”

Thanks to the Turner Classic Movie channel, the M.G.M library of films is constantly on call, enabling its roster of immortal stars — more than “there are in the Heavens” — to be as familiar now as they were in the heyday of their careers, and to remain forever accessible. The fact of owning a copy of such films, in ever-changing formats, is still something of a phenomenon. Certainly this vast myriad of contract players never enjoyed such easy access to their own work at the time. Once a film went out of circulation, it remained out of reach for just about everybody. Today, these artists and directors can be studied at length, and the work of those behind the scenes — including the designers and technicians — scrutinized frame by frame. Or note by note, as with the prolific output from M.G.M.’s Herbert Stothart. Based on the box office receipts, it turns out that Herbert Stothart is one of the best known and most recognized composers in the world. And for Judy Garland — right time, right place, right wizard.

The M.G.M Orchestra prided itself in its stable of world class musicians. And no one was better at the podium in creating moods and atmospheres than Herbert Stothart. He was known for being constantly on the set of films assigned to him, working side by side with all of M.G.M.’s great directors. In addition to Victor Fleming, that list included Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel), Sidney Franklin (The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Good Earth), Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina), George Cukor (David Copperfield, Camille) W.S. Van Dyke (San Francisco, Marie Antoinette), William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver), Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Clarence Brown (National Velvet, The Yearling), and many more. Stothart dug deep into the subtext and became the master at being able to “say it with music”.

Stothart’s score for The Wizard of Oz is comprised of much more than its list of hit tunes by Harold Arlen. All those connecting bits of music for scenes such as Toto’s escape from Miss Gulch, the whirling insides of the tornado, the celestial arrival of Glinda into Munchkinland, Dorothy’s initial encounter with the nailed-up Scarecrow, or the march of the soldiers around the castle of the Wicked Witch of the West — are the dreamworks created, overseen and conducted by the brilliant Mr. Stothart. His adaptations of Arlen’s material are all highly nuanced, orchestrated to advance the flow of the plot line, and aimed straight toward the heart. Throughout his career, Stothart was known for his amazing ability to create leitmotifs — signature musical moments that become quickly associated with specific characters, and which enhance the emotional links and spice-up the dramatic tension. Stothart’s challenge for The Wizard of Oz was to flesh-out the supernatural, warn against the wicked, jog memories of home, fire-up personal determination and courage, and to dazzle the imagination with the wonderment and buffoonery of the Emerald City. The “Stothart Touch” impacts the film in many profound and measurable ways. His soundscapes are eternally linked to the mystique of Judy Garland. Stothart took the Oscar that year for “Best Original Score,” surpassing even Max Steiner’s Gone With The Wind and Dark Victory, and Alfred Newman’s Wuthering Heights.

San Francisco Symphony has established an ardent fan base for its accompanied films. Last season’s screening of Casablanca was completely packed. Even the film’s die-hard fans seemed amazed at exactly how much incidental music, particularly popular songs from the period, had been crammed into the score. You only noticed it because of the faint glimmer of light on the bows of the violins, the occasional sparkle in the brass section, or the clear tones from the grand piano that replaced the fingering of Dooley Wilson through several renditions of “As Time Goes By.” For The Wizard of Oz, the experience will be slightly different. The film will be screened in High Definition and — NO! — this is not the sing-along version. It is as close as we’ll ever get to actually being with Herbert Stothart and to his experience of matching music with action. Since the film’s first annual nationwide television broadcast in 1956, The Wizard of Oz has become ingrained into the American culture and indelibly etched in the hearts, brains, and collective fortitude in at least four generations in anyone’s family.

In short, we all know how The Wizard of Oz is supposed to sound! San Francisco Symphony is going to transport us back in time and show us how that happened.

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