Symphony Orchestra’s first night at the movies debuts with ‘Wizard of Oz’ film concert

When it came time for the Wichita Symphony to select the first full-length movie score the orchestra would perform in concert, the answer was as clear as ruby red slippers on a yellow brick road.

“For Kansans, you don’t get much more nostalgia than ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” symphony spokeswoman Arleigh McCormick said. “It’s a film that spoke to many Kansans’ hearts, so we thought it would be a great holiday film for people to watch with full orchestra.”

The symphony will perform the entire score and the iconic songs such as “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” while the film plays above them on the Century II stage next weekend.

“It’s not a ‘pit orchestra’ so to speak,” McCormick said. “It’s a full symphonic orchestra.”

Symphonies playing full movie scores have gained popularity in the past few years, with “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” films among those getting the live music treatment.

“It’s kind of a nationwide, worldwide trend right now,” McCormick said.

Symphony conductor and music director Daniel Hege said the decision was easy. “We thought, ‘We’re in Kansas, why not capitalize on “Oz”’?” he said in a February interview announcing the 2018-19 season.

The Wichita Symphony is celebrating several anniversaries during its 75th season, while “The Wizard of Oz” turns 80 years old next year.

“We’re only missing it by a month,” McCormick said.

The guest conductor for the concert is Peter Bay, music director and conductor for the Austin Symphony Orchestra, which presented its own “Oz” film-concert in October.

“He does have kind of a niche in doing the film-with-orchestra scores,” McCormick said of Bay.

When audiences enter Century II, she said, the lights will be dimmed. The orchestra will use only the lights on their music stands.

Bay has a prompt at the podium to make sure the instrumentals match up with the audio track, McCormick said.

The Oscar-winning score will be missing, supplied by the orchestra. But that is the only change, she said.

“You’ll hear the voices,” McCormick said. “When you hear ‘Over the Rainbow,’ you’ll hear Judy Garland’s voice with the live Wichita Symphony Orchestra below it.”

With the large screen above the orchestra and live music, “you’ll get this enhanced experience with the film,” she said. “It’s truly like you’ve never seen it before.”

The movie is also a treat visually, thanks to a digitally remastered film.

“The colors will pop a little bit brighter,” McCormick said, “at least when you get to Oz.”

Playing along with the movie creates new challenges for the symphony players, McCormick said.

“Sometimes there’s this misunderstanding that film music is less difficult or less challenging to a listener’s ear palate or a musician’s fingers,” she said. “But truly, the music of John Williams is some of the hardest symphonic music out there.”

Musician friends who have played the “Oz” score, McCormick said, find the toughest time playing with the Munchkins.

“Their tempos aren’t always consistent,” she said.

McCormick said the symphony hopes the night is a “fun, celebratory holiday event,” and the staff “might have raided some of the post-Halloween sales to get in character.”

The symphony players are encouraged to dress appropriately for “Oz,” and audience members are welcome to as well.

“We just ask that everybody is courteous to the people sitting behind them,” McCormick said. “We can’t have a witch’s hat blocking the view of the patron behind them.”

There will be an intermission, she added.

While the 2019-2020 season will be announced in a few months, McCormick said the symphony is “looking at a couple of options” for a movie-music marriage, but said it isn’t certain.

“We’re waiting to see how this goes with the Wichita market,” she said.


When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8

Where: Century II concert hall

Tickets: $40-$80, from wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office