The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra‘s two year hiatus from live movie nights was thankfully brought to an end on October 23rd, 2021. As the season approaches Halloween, what better way to inaugurate the holiday season than with a performance of Tim Burton’s beloved 1993 classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Costumes were wholeheartedly encouraged by the CSO, and thus Jack Skellington’s signature stripes were in abundance; one such costume was donned by none other than Christopher James Lees, the resident conductor of the CSO. As Lees walked onstage in a full Jack Skellington costume, including a mask and skeletal gloves, the audience exploded in ecstatic applause.

The overture began and the atmosphere that can only be found in Burton films rested over the Belk Theater. Looking around the audience, every participant seemed just as excited as the orchestra was to perform live once again. Watching the conductor perform with a miniature movie screen in front of him was fascinating, and watching the conductor’s screen (with its regularly occurring pulses at the beginning of measures and cues that informed the tempo) made me appreciate the difficulties of conducting such a piece.

Some of the difficulties involved in conducting and performing movie scores, especially live, are the varying tempos and character changes needed to best portray what is occurring on the screen. The CSO performed the rambunctious and meandering score composed by Danny Elfman incredibly well. From one scene to the next, a whole different tone and approach is needed in order to prevent stagnancy and boredom. This is no easy feat, especially considering Elfman’s compositional style that is almost entirely based on extreme characterizations.

One excitement of listening to a film score live is that you’re listening without the endless editing and mixing needed to balance a score so it’s not a distraction, but rather an enhancement to what is unfolding in the movie. When performed live, the opposite happens, and you can’t help but pay attention to the musical score. This results in a delightful experience of hearing nuances and small details that may otherwise be missed because of typical film editing. When watching a classic such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, where one may have listened to the music a numerous amount of times, the listener has the privilege to understand and experience the score in a completely new way. As the first time attendee of a live music movie performance, I experienced this first hand. For example, I was much more aware of how Elfman often uses strings as a special effect, rather than the foundation of harmony. The woodwinds and horns are used more prominently in the overall mix of the orchestra.

This experience was a positive and pleasurable one. The orchestra was exemplary in their performance of a difficult film score. Lees led the orchestra with great expertise, as if his career contained nothing but the unique challenges this performance presents. What made this such a memorable experience was truly the audience, who was thrilled to return to some sense of normalcy after two years of cancelled and postponed performances. To be involved in the excitement that comes from the performance of a lovely festive film makes this experience more than worth it.