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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in Concert

The Harry Potter category on this blog indicates the love I have for JK Rowling’s creation (we have the books, the DVDS, the Blu-rays – because I only had the US DVD for the first film and we wanted to have The Philosopher’s Stone, not The Sorcerer’s Stone – we’ve visited the Studio Tour twice, we’ve seen The Cursed Child). We haven’t been to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter yet, but it’s on the top of our wish list. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – our favourite Harry Potter film – accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall, we knew had to take it.

It was on a Tuesday evening but there were still loads of people pouring out of South Kensington tube and walking up past the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum to attend the performance. Oddly, there were no people in costume, which I thought might be a natural fit, but there were plenty of Hogwarts scarves and other related paraphernalia in evidence. The Royal Albert Hall is an edifice of spectacle – a huge circular auditorium that is great for spectators but not great for acoustics (the sound system was set up via speakers around the room). However, the worst aspect is the woeful lack of toilets for women – I’m sure that the performance didn’t begin when it was supposed to because of the number of woman queueing to use the facilities before the 7.30pm start time. Please sort that out, Royal Albert Hall.

Our seats were high up to the left of the screen – we were very close to the edge of the screen, with a wonky angle, but it didn’t matter because we know the film very well. Anyway, I was more interested in watching the orchestra as they played and trying to identify which instruments were responsible for which sounds in the music, and we had an excellent view of them. The conductor came out and introduced things before the lights went down and the film started. People applauded after the first bit of music in the opening credits, which was slightly worrying if they were going to do that for every bit of music, but they didn’t thankfully so we got to watch the film without having to clap at every bit of music.

An interesting aside: the film played with the subtitles on, something we’ve never done before (it’s never entered our minds to do it) so we got to see dialogue that we’d never heard before, which was quite a novelty after having watched it many times, as it revealed things we didn’t know about a movie we’ve watched many times. I didn’t think something like that could happen after the number of times we’ve seen it, so it was an added bonus.

I’ve heard about watching films to a live accompaniment (and we’ve seen a silent movie which was accompanied by someone playing an original Compton organ, which was quite something – they also played various film scores on it to demonstrate its impressive range) but never attended one and I highly recommend the experience. Cinema is a mix of moving image and sound, and story and dialogue tend to dominate, particularly in my experience because of my limited understanding of the intricacies of orchestral music, so the addition of a live orchestra playing along to the film really enhances that dimension of your enjoyment of the film.

I read that Alfonso Cuaron really challenged John Williams to come up with something different from his usual approach to film scores, and the result is something unlike anything Williams has created before. It’s my favourite Harry Potter score and favourite Williams score, so hearing it performed properly was quite something. The different elements of the score were highlighted by seeing different parts as you went along – the slight hint of Egyptian in the music around the discussion of the Weasleys visiting Egypt; the mediaeval tones that creep in to give an element of magic; the eeriness of the sole recorder that is used several times in the score in the absence of the rest of the orchestra; the sense of movement and beating wings and flight that is brought out by an orchestra performing Buckbeak’s flight. Watching the film in this way really demonstrates the subtle skill in scoring a film and the amazing talents of the individuals making the music. There was even a choir for small bits – the choir in Hogwarts singing, the carol singers in Hogsmeade, even the angelic chorus behind the dementors – which added an extra dimension to the night.

Watching the film with an audience of Harry Potter fans was also a delightful experience. Normally, watching a film in the cinema is a mix of people who want to be there and people dragged along; watching a film with fans who already love the film is a warm, friendly, encompassing experience. The audience laughed at the right bits; they cheered when Hermione punched Draco; they cheered at various names when the credits came up at the end (Emma Watson got a larger cheer, and Alan Rickman got the biggest cheer). They were all there to enjoy the experience and enjoy it with people who loved it as much as they did. Sometimes, you would get absorbed in the film and forget about the orchestra, probably because the music was doing its job of aiding the storytelling, and then you’d remember and focus on the orchestra again.

I found myself feeling slight sorry for the parts of the orchestra that weren’t being used as much as the rest (the strings get a lot of work, whereas the percussion section is used fitfully), and wondering how the orchestra felt about Harry Potter – it must be rather boring to have to watch the film (or, rather, have it playing behind them while they performed) and even more boring when they have to sit and wait for the conductor to cue them in because there are large sections where there is no music. But they were all professionals getting paid to do a job, so they weren’t yawning with boredom during the performance. After the end of the film, where the orchestra got to really shine because the end credits play out to a collection of all the main themes to keep viewers watching, the orchestra got an encore and all members got to stand up to accept the applause they rightfully deserved before they turned the lights on to get rid of us (because Harry Potter fans could have clapped for ages to keep the magic alive). A thoroughly enchanting evening, a memorable experience and one that I would recommend to anybody who enjoys films and their scores.

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