Pops, Berklee provide new music for silent vampire classic
Things are getting spooky at Symphony Hall.
No, the ghost of Serge Koussevitzky hasn’t been spotted haunting the conductor’s dressing room. But a vampire is expected onstage during a concert by the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra on Friday night.
Ticketholders can leave the wooden stakes and garlic at home, though — the ghoulishness should stay in two dimensions, in the form of “Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror,” the classic horror film directed by F.W. Murnau and based on Bram Stoker’s nocturnal bloodsucker, Dracula. The Pops will accompany the 1922 film “Nosferatu” with a new live score, freshly written by a group of Berklee College of Music students and their professor.
This is a newfound collaboration between the school and the Pops. Berklee faculty member Sheldon Mirowitz, a composer for film and television and three-time Emmy nominee, wrote the “superstructure” of the music, he explained, and then selected eight students to collaborate on fleshing it out into a full-length score.
Before “Nosferatu,” Mirowitz had collaboratively composed nine scores for silent films performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, a student chamber ensemble. Though that well-respected group has toured as far afield as San Francisco and played the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, writing something to be performed by the Pops at Symphony Hall is an entirely different opportunity.
“This is sort of the dream,” Mirowitz said in a phone interview. “The dream is to write music for as great an ensemble as the Pops, and then to have it played with a top conductor who can handle it, in this awesome place, for a lot of people.”
The students, Berklee undergrads majoring in film scoring, are from all over the world: South Korea, Israel, Russia, Canada, Malaysia, plus one student from Boston. Each was assigned a stretch of the film of about 15 minutes, similar to the length of one reel.
When conductor Keith Lockhart led the casually dressed members of the Pops through a rehearsal of the material at Symphony Hall on Tuesday afternoon, the composers gathered in the stage-right balcony, exchanging looks that ranged from excited to nervous. One held her phone aloft with one hand, shooting video, while holding a copy of the score in her lap with the other.
As Lockhart conducted, he looked down at a video monitor that showed the film, with colorful visual markers digitally added to indicate downbeats and other details of the score. The music had the requisite moments of noisy drama one might expect, but also reflected the nuances and sophistication brought to bear by an elite group of young composers.
When the piece finished, Lockhart immediately looked up at the students as if to gauge their reaction, then called them down for an onstage huddle, to give notes. He’d already met with them earlier in the composition process, to go over some of the differences between composing a film score meant to be recorded in a studio versus played in a concert hall.
Sitting for an interview after rehearsal, a trio of students seemed to be in awe from having just seen the Boston Pops perform their music.
“I enjoyed it a lot when I heard everyone else’s reel,” said Amit May Cohen of Israel, “but when it was mine, I was like. . .”
She trailed off, laughing and shaking her hands in a gesture of exaggerated nervousness that her comrades immediately understood.
“I’ve never been so satisfied by this amount of quality at a rehearsal,” added Wani Han of South Korea, still seeming pretty dazzled by the chops of the Pops.
This project may be the biggest challenge of these students’ young careers, but it includes heavy lifting for Lockhart and company as well. Whereas a film score would typically be recorded in bits of a few minutes at a time, this calls for more than 90 minutes of continuous playing, all of it synchronized carefully with the film.
“Even if all of us are keeping very good time, we’re human, and things change, and if things change by a second over the course of a minute, that’s an unacceptable lapse when you’re accompanying a film,” said Lockhart, in a separate interview after the Tuesday rehearsal. “So it’s a big concentration exercise. It really feels like running a marathon.
“All my concentration is staying with the film,” he added. “The other things — cueing people, bringing people in, musical things — you have to handle kind of intuitively, because you just don’t have enough places to put your brain.”
Though he’d previously scored several other works by the influential filmmaker Murnau, Mirowitz said he’s been saving “Nosferatu” for the right occasion.
“It’s the quintessential horror movie,” he said, “but it’s really about love, and the power of love and redemption. It’s got everything.”
Now it’s got the Boston Pops, too.
At: Symphony Hall, Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $37-$47. 888-266-1200, www.bostonpops.org