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Charlotte Symphony’s Christopher James Lees Prepares Another Concert in Film For The Force Awakens

‘A living room for the city’

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This custom content article is supported by the Charlotte Symphony. Learn more about the organization’s films-in-concert events below and get tickets to Star Wars: The Force Awakens happening March 15 & 16 at Belk Theater.

Anyone who’s attended one of the dozen-plus films-in-concert events that Charlotte Symphony has put on in recent years as part of its Movie Series can tell you that there is no experience like it when it comes to watching one of your favorite flicks. 

With the symphony performing the scores of classic films live in sync as the pictures show on a 15-by-35-foot screen, as will be the case during Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Concert at Belk Theater on March 15-16, it’s likely to surpass any moviegoing memory you may have. 

For resident conductor Christopher James Lees, that’s because the mix of platforms creates a unique perspective one can’t find elsewhere.

“Part of the genius of these movie concerts is the fact that the recorded performance of the actors and the Foley artists and the script writers, all the elements of the film, they’re all on record, they are static, they will always be the same performance,” Lees told Queen City Nerve. “And when you put a live performance component to it, in terms of the musicians, I think it makes the recorded performance, the archive, the collected performance, that much more exhilarating. 

“We are not recorded,” he continued. “We are very much creating the experience in the moment. And that dichotomy is also unique to this format. It’s a singularly remarkable and unparalleled experience to have as a viewer.” 

What attendees might not realize in that moment, however, is that they are watching the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) perform at peak levels, executing in a pressure cooker as compared to an average performance. 

As Lees pointed out, the score you hear in any given movie was not created with live performance in mind — it was edited together from separately recorded bits, providing plenty of time for the musicians to take breaks between dramatic musical turns.

Christopher James Lees leads the Charlotte Symphony for a score of Star Wars
Christopher James Lees conducts the symphony over Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in 2023. (Courtesy of Charlotte Symphony)

“When you do a live performance, it means that you are playing continuously for a very long time,” Lees explained. “When we did Return of the Jedi last year, the second half included nearly 50 minutes of uninterrupted playing, from space battles to eerie throne-room music.” 

What’s more, if the symphony loses its timing by even a second, the crowd can pick up on that visually far easier than in any other performance CSO puts on. 

“There is a sort of razor’s edge that we’re required to skate so that the experience of the movie is unhindered by the mechanics of making it happen,” Lees continued. 

Yet despite all the pressure, there’s a certain joy that Lees takes in the challenge. He proudly stated that, for each of the film concerts that he has conducted, the symphony has only needed two rehearsals before performing the score live. 

When we spoke with him over the phone in the lead-up to the Force Awakens performance, he was in his home office looking at the 500-plus-page score and preparing to check out a practice track he had been sent. 

“I’ll see the click track that holds us all together and be able to practice with that to prepare, so that when we get to our rehearsal time … I can pull everybody together and we can get it sounding good together — refined and ready for performance within 24 hours,” he said. 

“The speed at which we put all of our concerts together, I think, would baffle and amaze the public because it relies on the talent, the industriousness, the collective decades of individual work, and the ensemble skills that each player has perfected over the course of their career to be able to do it that quickly,” he continued, sounding like a proud father.

An added bonus to the March performance for Lees is that it gives him another chance to engage with the work of his all-time favorite film composer: John Williams. 

With five Academy Awards and 54 nominations, the 92-year-old Williams is the second-most nominated person in history after Walt Disney. Having scored nine Star Wars films comprising more than 18 hours of music, Williams is said to have composed between 60 or 70 themes for that franchise alone. 

Charlotte Symphony performing the score of a Star Wars movie in 2023
A view of the Symphony performing a Star Wars score from 2023. (Courtesy of Charlotte Symphony)

Williams is also the composer behind countless other classics, including films that Lees and CSO have performed as part of their past Movies Series such as E.T. and Jurassic Park. He was said to have become a household name with the Academy Award-winning score for Jaws, which CSO will perform at Belk this summer, June 14-15.

“He is the most iconic American composer who happens to write for film,” said Lees. “His orchestrations are brilliant, his themes are so integrated across episodes of franchises for which he’s written, and the writing is incredibly difficult. 

“It’s really well-crafted and it makes the orchestra sound brilliant while also creating very catchy and unforgettable melodies that you’ll find yourself singing and ask yourself, ‘What is that? Why am I singing Yoda’s theme?’ Because it burrows subconsciously,” he continued. “And so his craftsmanship and his storytelling, his skill, I think it’s unparalleled.” 

For him, the Movie Series is about more than the music, it’s about a communal experience for Charlotteans that will not soon be forgotten. Whether on a date, family trip or solo night on the town, everyone’s a part of it. 

“When you gather thousands of people together to watch a movie, we rarely have that experience; even commercial movie theaters, when they’ve sold well, won’t reach the 2,000-seat capacity of the Belk Theater,” Lees said. 

“And so when you do that, it has a way of shrinking the theater and creating, for a night, a living room for the city,” he continued. “When they gather everybody in and we watch a movie together in that space, that becomes really quite special. It’s something that if people haven’t experienced, they really should.”

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