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Q&A with Jurassic Park conductor Ben Palmer

Conducting our live soundtrack screening of Jurassic Park, Ben Palmer returns to Millennium Square in Leeds with the Orchestra of Opera North on Sunday 28 July, following the success of last summer’s Brassed Off Live.

He told us about his lifelong love of John Williams’ gloriously nerve-shredding Jurassic Park soundtrack, and let us in on what’s in store for the spectacular closing event in this year’s Opera North in the City

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What’s your personal experience of the film?

“I saw Jurassic Park in the cinema the year it was released, 1993, when I was 11. Like everyone else, I loved the film and the soundtrack, but it only hit me really hard a year later, when we played some of the music in my school orchestra. As a young trumpet player, it was a huge thrill to play THAT theme, as the helicopter drops down to land at Isla Nublar, and that whole sequence is still the most exciting part of the movie for me when I conduct it 25 years later.”

How does John Williams’ score heighten our sense of tension, terror and wonder?

“I’ve always felt that a significant part of John Williams’ greatness is his ability to compose in any style. This versatility means every moment in his films can have the perfect accompaniment, but that the whole somehow holds together as the work of one composer. It’s astonishing. Jurassic Park is more varied than most Williams scores: There’s the music for the dinosaurs, that grand, reverent, hymn-like main theme, the exciting trumpet fanfare that represents Jurassic Park itself, and then all the tense, violent, and aggressive music associated with the velociraptors and the T-Rex chase.

“But there are also moments like the jazzy Tom and Jerry-style cue for the DNA cartoon, what can only be described as a love theme for the sick triceratops, and luscious, almost French-sounding Ravel-like music for the treetop brachiosaurus encounter:

“Somehow, these contrasts throw the scary and exciting moments into even greater relief, so that the big surprises in the film are really enhanced by what the orchestra is playing.”

What are the challenges for you as the conductor?

“It’s always a challenge keeping a 75-piece orchestra in time with a film. The movie won’t wait for you, so the conductor has to be very precise with each tempo, so that the big synchronisation points where music and picture come together are perfectly timed.

This will be my 12th performance of Jurassic Park in Concert, so opening the score feels like greeting an old friend. The film has a few challenging spots – mostly big ‘shocks’ in the middle of long sequences of music – so it’s all about making sure we’re perfectly aligned in the run-up to these moments, so that, for the audience, the music feels as organic and spontaneous as it does on the original soundtrack. I’ve always found opera orchestras are very good at playing for films – and the Orchestra of Opera North is no exception – because they’re so used to accompanying singers.”

What are your memories of your Opera North debut?

Brassed Off Live in Millennium Square last summer was an incredible experience. It was my first time conducting that film, Grimethorpe Colliery Band and the Orchestra, so it felt like quite a big day for me personally. But there was something about the warmth from the audience, and the knowledge that the film resonated so strongly with so many people who were there watching – after all, ‘Grimley’ was only 20 miles away – that made the whole evening extremely special for us all.”

What can this year’s audiences expect?

Jurassic Park in Concert is one of the great film-with-orchestra experiences. Of course, firstly it’s just a great family film, and wonderful music. But there’s something amazing about hearing and seeing a live orchestra creating the soundtrack for you in real time, while you watch the movie on a huge cinema screen with a few thousand other fans. After every film-with-orchestra I conduct, there’s usually someone who posts a photo to social media with the caption, ‘From now on, I’m only going to see a film if there’s a live orchestra playing’. For me, that pretty much sums it up.”

Ben Palmer is one of Europe’s foremost specialists in conducting live to film, leading over 40 performances each year in addition to his commitments as Chief Conductor of the Deutsche Philharmonie Merck, and founder and Artistic Director of Covent Garden Sinfonia. He conducts the Orchestra of Opera North in Jurassic Park in Concert on Sunday 28 July, part of Opera North in the City on Millennium Square, Leeds.


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