When the Milwaukee Symphony plays the live soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban this weekend, not all of the Potter fans will be in the audience.
The books and movies about J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard have been firmly embedded in popular culture for nearly two decades, and some MSO musicians will be enthusiastically peeking at the screen when they’re not busy playing John Williams’ complex score.
“I started reading the Harry Potter books shortly after the first one came out, when I was about 10 years old,” first violinist Alex Ayers says. “I remember it being a big deal when the next book in the series would come out. When I first read the books as a kid, I would experience the events from Harry’s point of view. Now I try to see things from Harry’s friends’ point of view, or his teachers’.”
Second violinist Hyewon Kim became a fan of the movies when she was a teenager in Korea; then she dug into the books. After this weekend’s performances, she is looking forward to her first trip to London, where she plans to take the Warner Brothers studio tour, “The Magic of Harry Potter.”
“My favorite movie is this upcoming one, Prisoner of Azkaban,” Kim says. “The time traveling scenes were awesome! But I love the books much more, because it gives me more room to be imaginative.” When the orchestra is playing, “I try to watch as much as possible,” she says. “But I’m able to guess what’s going on when I can’t see the screen, and it’s fun.”
Second violinist Paul Hauer agreed, “When I'm not focusing to play the thousands of sixteenth notes in front of me, I do enjoy watching the film during the tacets,” when the orchestra has a break.
Hauer, unlike Ayers and Kim, is a recent convert to Potterdom – he didn’t read the books until the MSO had performed the first movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, two years ago. The audiences, he says, “come dressed in Hogwarts regalia, and they participate enthusiastically, cheering for their respective houses, or booing when Scabbers appears” – referring to Ron Weasley’s pet rat that has a dark secret.
“Harry is my favorite because he always does what he feels is right, even if it means breaking the rules a bit,” Hauer said. “Severus Snape is my favorite minor character because his decisions are more ambiguous.”
“I prefer the books over the movies, mainly because I read them so many times when I was younger,” Ayers says. His favorite character is Neville Longbottom, the bumbling student wizard who “shows the true courage of a Gryffindor in the final battle for Hogwarts.” Kim votes for Hermione Granger: “She is so smart and useful, I don’t know how Harry could solve the last mission at the end without her help.”
All of the musicians agreed that the score demands their full attention. “Any violinist will tell you that Harry Potter equals way too many notes that are way too fast,” Ayers said. “I like the challenge of that; it turns into a game of ‘try to play all of this. The violin parts are among the most difficult music that Williams has written.”
For at least a decade, the Riverside has hired the MSO to play with tributes to classic rock bands, but the movie soundtrack features are more recent. Matt Beringer, chief operating officer for the Pabst Theater Group, said that the current arrangement dates to 2016, when the MSO accompanied the score of The Godfather in the spring and the first Harry Potter movie at the holiday season.
“Just because it’s a popular movie, there’s no guarantee the audience will be receptive,” Beringer said, but the Potter franchise “resonates with the right audience, listening to the symphony paired with their favorite movie.”
The symphony will also perform The Empire Strikes Back at the Riverside on May 31 + June 1-2, as well as Disney’s The Little Mermaid on April 6 +7. And when the symphony moves to the Warner Grand Theater two blocks away in 2020, “there’ll be even more opportunities to work together,” he said. “I think it’s been great. We all feel really positive that we can expose the MSO to an audience that might not normally have that exposure. We’ve certainly benefited from having a world-class orchestra on our stage.”
“I think the audience really enjoys seeing a live orchestra play music along with a movie,” Ayers said. “The Harry Potter universe is so beloved and the music is so recognizable that experiencing the MSO playing Harry Potter is really special.”