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How Oz was unplugged 

Not in Kansas anymore

OK, so we're off to see the Wizard — but at Belk Theater??!? In an unprecedented collaboration between Charlotte Symphony and MGM, two screenings of the beloved 1939 classic became Oz With Orchestra over the weekend. Spotlighting the music of Harold Arlen and the musical adaptation of Herbert Stothart, Symphony played the complete score of The Wizard of Oz while a sparkling HD version of the film was projected overhead.

The enterprise is the brainchild of John Goberman, creator of the Live from Lincoln Center TV series. Turns out that the same adroit producer who has brought the artistry of divas, maestros, Balanchine and Wynton Marsalis into our living rooms for the past 35 seasons also has a healthy appreciation for the great film scores. Symphonic Cinema began at the summit of the art, with Sergei Prokofiev's legendary collaboration on Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky.

Child's play. Once you stripped the Russian soundtrack of the musical score, leaving the dialogue and the nonmusical sound effects, you can fill the gap with symphonic sounds that have been recorded many times over by orchestras around the world. For The Wizard of Oz, there were no manuscripts for conductors to study or for musicians to rehearse — even in the most familiar moments of the film.

Recreating the original sheet music became a prime mission after Goberman hatched his Oz project.

"John Wilson and Andrew Cottee transcribed a good deal of it," Goberman says. "So what you're hearing becomes a performance of The Wizard of Oz, not just a screening of it — in this case, Judy Garland singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' accompanied by the Charlotte Symphony."

Cranking out sheet music was only the first step. Of course, when Dorothy has begun pouring her heart out in Kansas, it's relatively simple to play along. But the music underscoring the entire film is only there about three-quarters of the time. There are many treacherous instances when the orchestra silently waits to make their next entrance. To know precisely when to cue the musicians, conductor Albert-George Schram would need to know every frame of the film by heart.

"This is for orchestras and conductors, and of course, film people love it," Goberman confides. "But the whole game was to make it as uncomplicated and straightforward as I could. This is really a musical adventure: There is a breathing, you go faster and slower, you make emotional moments with it. So I ducked away from the whole issue of click tracks, etc. etc., and I just do it with a clock."

It was an analog stop clock with a sweep second hand, affording Schram with a time-space concept of how long he and his ensemble had to wait before pouncing on their next cue. Key clock points and musical timings are dutifully marked in the conductor's score. So Schram was actually watching two films, since the moving clock — a mechanism no longer manufactured in this digital age — wasn't live but preserved on tape.

Guided by the clock markings, Schram and the Symphony had the leeway to go slightly faster or slower than the original soundtrack. So those crucial "emotional moments" could get the spontaneity of live performance. The strictest synchronization in film — even more precise than what is possible with click tracks — is achieved in animation, where the musical soundtrack is laid down first.

Schram's eyes had to drift upwards when Garland and the other Wizard stars began to sing. Of course, those cues were especially difficult to catch on the fly.

"The whole thing is difficult," Goberman insists, "but in this case, you're accompanying a singer, so it's a little bit like an opera. You've got a singer on stage, you're the conductor, and you're accompanying her, and it's got the give-and-take of an opera performance — it's just that there is no give!"

Concert halls aren't designed to show off cinematic vocal tracks to the best advantage, so the real give-and-take was between Schram, modulating the orchestra under the dialogue, and the technician riding gain on the film as it ran. Schram had conducted the score live before in Nashville, but Goberman could only guess at which passages required the most intense rehearsal.

"There is one tricky place in Munchkinland, which is almost like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta stuck in the middle of the film," Goberman says, "but [Schram] did it very well."

Viewing the film with the score played live, Goberman points out, gives us a fresh appreciation of how much the music contributes to the drama when we reach the Wizard's sanctum in Emerald City — and later when we venture into the domain of the Wicked Witch of the West. Even Toto's tribulations are heightened by the score.

And of course, music conspires with celluloid — or at least its digital descendant — when we're first lifted into the stratosphere by the Kansas twister. Suddenly when we touch down at the foot of a dead witch, the drab black-and-white of Dorothy's home is abandoned for the over-the-rainbow color of Oz.

"Musically, it's written as a fantasia at that point," Goberman gushes. "All of a sudden, it's almost like it's by a different composer. In other words, he really made a musical point of that switch to color, which you're really not that aware of when you're watching it with a recorded track. But boy, you hear it with the orchestra! It's very impressionistic."

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