We caught up with conductor Ben Palmer ahead of his performance of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial in Concert at Leeds Town Hall on Sunday 14 April.
Hello Ben. Please could you describe the concert to us in your own words?
The Czech National Symphony Orchestra will play John Williams’s amazing score live to a screening of the classic Spielberg family film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
What can the audience expect from this concert?
For an audience, seeing a film with live orchestra is an amazing fusion of concert and cinema. It’s a pretty overwhelming experience watching a classic film on a huge HD screen, while one of the greatest soundtracks ever composed is played live. The musicians and I work hard with the technical team to get a truly cinematic balance between music and dialogue, and it’s definitely the live score element that makes the whole thing feel electric from start to finish. It is so different from watching a DVD, or even seeing the film in a cinema.
Can you explain why having an orchestra to accompany the film makes it extra special?
There’s something about actually seeing the musicians playing on stage in front of you, working hard (not to mention the conductor, who has to keep 70 musicians perfectly synchronised with the screen!), that makes gives an intimacy, immediacy and emotional weight to the performance that you just don’t get from a recording – even one as incredible as the original soundtrack. One of the reasons people love this film is because of the music – just think of that soaring Flying Theme as the bikes take to the sky! – and experiencing that being recreated right in front of you can be very moving.
Tell us about any childhood memories you have of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, what does the film mean to you?
I was actually born in 1982, the year E.T. was released, so I don’t think I’d ever really watched it all the way through until I was preparing to conduct it for the first time, early last year! However, I’ve known the soundtrack since I was a teenage trumpet player, as we performed some of the music in my county youth orchestra. So, getting to know the film and how the music relates to it, was actually a rather wonderful process. I’ve conducted lots of John Williams films live to picture – Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Home Alone, Jurassic Park – but E.T. is without doubt my favourite of them all.
Which part of the score is your favourite, and why?
My favourite moment is the very end of the film. Without giving away the story – I’m sure there’ll be some people seeing it for the first time! – the climax of the story is extremely emotional, and the music is some of the best film music ever written. Then, the orchestra and I get to enjoy playing the end credits, which ends in a triumphant blaze of glory. When I conducted this in London last year the audience reaction at the end was so immense I almost burst into tears on stage!
Which part of the score is the hardest to match up to the film? How do you manage to keep in time?
The most difficult section to match up to the film is the famous bike chase scene. The music is extremely fast and tricky to play, with lots of difficult rhythms, and yet we need to stay glued to the picture, so that when the bikes finally take to the air, the orchestra is in exactly the right place. I have a monitor in front of me that shows the film, but also a system of moving lines and flashes (called “punches and streamers”) that show me where the music should go in relation to the picture. It’s essentially a visual click track, like a complicated version of the video game Guitar Hero! The bottom line is that I need to be very well prepared – each film takes several months of careful study to learn.
What is your favourite film?
My favourite film of all time is Back to the Future, but my favourite soundtrack is E.T.! The UK tour this April (of which our concert in Leeds is a part) is essentially my dream gig: 12 performances of these two films!