Conductor Gerard Salonga On MPO: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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This September, the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas will host a special screening of the classic Steven Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark. But what is unique about the movie presentation is that it will be accompanied by live music presented by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

At the helm conducting the talented musicians is resident conductor, Gerard Salonga. A seasoned conductor who has led orchestras across the region, Salonga is tasked in bringing the film to life with the help of John Williams’ legendary score.

Ahead of the special concert event, we spoke to Salonga to get his take on Raiders of the Lost Ark, orchestral works and the music of John Williams.

What is the greatest challenge leading an orchestra accompanying a screening like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’?
With any film-related audio, whether sound effects or music – synchronization to the other parts of the film is a crucial element, and thus usually the primary consideration of every film composer. Studio orchestras in Los Angeles and London routinely record film scores, and are accustomed to playing with headphones and a click, and the conductors are used to working with the video overlays like punches and streamers day in and day out.

For a typical professional symphony orchestra, this type of work is an exception rather than the rule, with projects like this taking up one or two weeks out of a 44-week season. Not that they cannot play the music well but a film score is usually recorded one cue (short pieces or sequences) at a time, and the orchestra maxes out at around 15 minutes of recorded music in a session. In a ‘live’ concert such as this one, we will be performing the score of the entire film in a single concert. The concentration required from all of us is very different.

How does it differ from, say, other orchestral works and symphonies?
In a concerto, the soloist can adjust to what he or she gets from the orchestra. Tempo may be slightly adjusted. In a ballet or opera, the tempo may change depending on how a dancer or singer may be feeling that day.

The pacing of a symphony is largely the conductor’s decision. Not in film. The film can’t hear you and cannot adjust to the music; we musicians have to be slaves to the rhythm and timing of the film every time. It’s challenging but quite fun when you successfully nail all the hit points!

Personally, what makes this particular film score by John Williams so iconic?
All of his scores are iconic. This particular score to me sounds a lot more light-hearted than say the drama of the E.T. score. This score is more about high adventure and goes over the top just enough to remind you that this is a fantasy film the subject matter of which is not to be taken too seriously.

From the perspective of a musician who is also a fan of musicians, this is one of the scores that added to the legend of the late Maurice Murphy MBE (1935-2010), who was principal trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1977-2007 and performed on this score. Aside from his performances on the scores of Star Wars and Superman, his playing on this film is incomparable and unforgettable.

Where would you rank ‘The Raiders March’ score amongst Williams’ other works?
As a Williams fan, it’s extremely difficult for me to rank them, though E.T. and The Book Thief are amongst my favourites. Most of the time, I like putting them in categories instead based on the character of the score. I’d put this one into the same space as the score to Superman but not with Star Wars or Catch Me If You Can

What makes William’s works so appealing and important to the films he composes for?
You have to remember that he was always the right composer for the projects he worked on. Every composer from Elfman to Newton-Howard to Zimmer has their “sound”. Williams gets called for his sound, which though uniquely his own, covers such a wide stylistic and emotional range. That could be his secret, I think. The fact that he writes so fluently in so many styles, and knows just how to give that last 10% of emotional push to the viewer/listener with the simplest celesta solo, huge sweeping orchestral tutti or those TWO notes that tell us that it’s not safe to go back into the water.

If you could pick another film score of Williams’ to conduct with the MPO in the future, what would those films be?
Definitely E.T., Star Wars and Catch Me If You Can. The week before I conduct Raiders with the MPO, I’ll also get to conduct Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ‘live’ in a concert in Manila with my orchestra. Two straight weeks with John Williams’ music on two great film concerts isn’t too bad at all!

DFP: Raiders of the Lost Ark in concert takes place on 21st and 22nd September 2019. For tickets log on to mpo.com.my

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