Monster of a movie: Kaufman and Pacific take on ‘Jurassic Park’

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Richard Kaufman, Principal Pops Conductor of Pacific Symphony, answered the door of his classic Encino ranch house the other day in his bare feet and khaki shorts. When he’s not conducting symphony orchestras around the world in live performances of film scores with the movie screened synchronously, Kaufman, 69, works in a home office equipped with a large desk, on which sits a giant computer monitor to watch the film he’s working on and the score to same.

The room is filled with papers and scores and mementos, including a framed photograph of Kaufman, a veteran of the Hollywood studios, coaching Jack Nicholson on the violin for his starring role in “The Witches of Eastwick.” (Those are Kaufman’s hands you see playing the piano in the scene in which Susan Sarandon’s cello bursts into flames.)

His current project is “Jurassic Park,” which he’ll conduct for the first time Saturday (Aug. 19) with Pacific Symphony at Pacific Amphitheatre. To demonstrate his duties, he flips on the movie to the scene where a T-Rex is chasing a jeep — pure mayhem — and conducts the score, which he has marked up with brightly colored highlighters. Meters and tempos change suddenly. A click track sets the pace. Both he and the orchestra will listen to it on headphones during the performance.

Here in the office, heard over loudspeakers, it’s hard to distinguish the clicks from the confusion of sounds in the movie and John Williams’ frenetic score, but Kaufman stays on top of it all, aggressively conducting beat patterns and flipping pages with lightning speed. He’s been working on “Jurassic Park” for months, he says.

Kaufman has conducted many of Williams’ film scores in concert, and back in the day when he was still a studio violinist, played on several of them. “I played violin on ‘Close Encounters’ and I remember that there were tons of notes and lots going on, but a lot of it was subliminal.” “Jurassic Park” is similar, he says. Beyond the famous main theme, “the rest is really pure brilliant underscore, where you don’t hear the melody but you hear a lot of percussion effects — there’s a lot of menacing going on underneath, a lot of tension.”

The live performance of film scores with film is a relatively recent development in the world of symphony orchestras, and more and more films are being made available in the format. (The music track of a film must be removed from the print, while dialogue and sound effects are left in.) Kaufman’s 2017-2018 schedule includes live to film performances of “North by Northwest” with the San Francisco Symphony, “Home Alone” and “Singin’ in the Rain” with the Chicago Symphony and “On the Waterfront” (score by Leonard Bernstein) at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge.

But more than any other film, he’ll conduct a newly available print of “Amadeus” (score by Mozart and Salieri, of course) with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, and, in five performances and his debut with the orchestra, the New York Philharmonic. (Coincidentally, the latter appearance will take place the same week that Carl St.Clair and Pacific Symphony make their debut at Carnegie Hall.)

The film business is a natural for Kaufman, who was born and raised in west Los Angeles. His Pony League baseball coach was Burt Lancaster. Jack Benny came to play with the youth orchestra Kaufman was in, and the two of them even did a bit together. He loves to share stories of the good old days and the great old composers, many of whom he worked with, in the Hollywood studios.

A great film composer, Kaufman says, quoting Elmer Bernstein, “must be a dramatist. He must be able to sit and watch the screen and figure out, first of all, where music shouldn’t be. I think it was (film composer) Bronislau Kaper who said the loudest sound in a motion picture is silence. It’s the problem with movies today, for me anyway. Too much music. It just takes you out of it.”

Performing a score live to film is no easy thing, Kaufman says. It’s different in the studio. “It’s different because on the scoring stage, you’ll do a minute and a half, two minutes, three minutes at one time. Then cut and maybe do pick ups in various sections. Here, we’re doing the whole film, beginning to end. It’s never done that way.”

What’s more, the sound mix has to be done live too, by the person at the soundboard. “So the person out there is basically mixing the film as on the dubbing stage — dialogue, sound effects and music. It’s a very complicated thing, especially in something like this where the music can be sort of full, but there’s dialogue. On the dubbing stage, you just pull the faders back, and you ride it. Well, here you have to do the same thing but you don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, let’s do another take, that wasn’t quite right.’”

That said, Kaufman is bullish on the live-with-film craze, and defends the concept against doubters.

“Almost all the films that are done in concert are worthy of being done because the bottom line is it’s the music. The music is the reason you’re doing the concert. People can go to a movie theater or they can rent a film and they can see it.

“But to have an orchestra play, to me, that’s what it’s all about.”

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