Guest conductor Constantine Kitospoulos. (Courtesy of The Santa Barbara Symphony)

On March 16, the Santa Barbara Symphony celebrated movie magic as it performed alongside movie clips in a jubilant expression of classic Hollywood cinema scoring and Santa Barbara’s deep connection to the prominent center of filmmaking.

On the heels of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) and the Academy Awards, the Santa Barbara Symphony indulged in the marvelous sounds of the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking and the classic movie scores that accompanied these Academy award-winning masterpieces. This concert was a prime example of the symphony opening the doors of the Granada Theatre, which turns 100 years old in April, to a wider and younger audience, one that the classical medium has so long neglected. 

In a quick interview before the program properly began, Kathryn Martin, the organization’s president and CEO, said, “The symphony is for everyone!”

She elaborated on the need to expand the organization’s demographic and showcase the wide range of repertoire the orchestra has at its disposal to perform. “[We are] showing that the symphony isn’t stuffy,” she said. “As a non-profit, it is our mission to engage the community.” 

The symphony does just that, with programs like its music van and youth ensembles, providing an avenue for the next generation of musicians and enthusiasts to grow their appreciation for the artistic medium.

The beautiful Granada Theatre was abuzz with laughter and delight as the packed and well-dressed hall eagerly awaited the orchestra’s performance of some of the greatest and most influential music in Hollywood’s history. Mixed in with the hum of conversation and anticipation was the ever-growing sound of the virtuosos on stage warming up. 

Eventually, the lights dimmed and the hall went silent. Musicians and patrons alike disappeared into the darkness as Martin walked onstage to deliver a heartfelt message to the crowd and the supporters of the symphony’s mission to bring classical music to Santa Barbara. 

“It is your support that not only helps create concerts like these but also you’re opening the hearts and minds of students throughout the county,” Martin told the audience. As she exited the stage, associate concertmaster Elizabeth Hedman entered, tuning the orchestra and properly beginning the night of music. 

The host of the evening, Leslie Zemeckis, introduced each piece and gave insights into the music and the accompanying movie it served to enhance. Zemeckis highlighted the history of movie scoring and the composers that were performed by the orchestra. With entrancing facts and some lighthearted jokes, the master of ceremonies created a lively atmosphere that yearned for the sounds of the cinema to come to life.

 With conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos leading the musicians onstage. The night opened with a triumphant fanfare of brass and violent strings as the Santa Barbara Symphony performed music from “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and “Ben-Hur” (1959) in the first half of the night. With the moving pictures on screen and fury onstage, one was constantly switching where to look as the action was heightened by the visual of musicians playing and vice versa.

The orchestra played in great balance with one another. Regal and clear trumpet mixed brilliantly with the fluttering strings, and woodwind sound soared above a constant barrage of percussion hits. The sound was that of classic Hollywood: a uniquely symphonic sound that can not be described but only experienced by immersing oneself in the music of movies. While in modern times, the music is not as groundbreaking as the work of Hans Zimmer or Ludwig Göransson, the clear emotions present in the scores engulf the listener in a sea of sound.

Courtesy of The Santa Barbara Symphony

Musical waves crashed into the theater as the orchestra effortlessly slipped in and out of emotions. The musicians portrayed terrifying fear and utter darkness, but could easily cast rays of sun and heroism or even the feeling of love and deep connection. The sound was powerful.

This epic grandeur sadly did have one Achilles’ heel. In the first half of the concert, popcorn-like static and low-volume dialogue distracted from the artistry evident in the sounds and sights present onstage, as maestro Kitsopoulos perfectly timed the music with the scenes playing. Unfortunately, this broke some of the immersion of the evening, but the skill of the players, including UC Santa Barbara professors Andy Radford and Jon Nathan, outshined any minor failures of the sound system.

In the spectacle of “Ben-Hur,” which closed the first half of the concert, the orchestra relished the brutally evil and cruel sound of the action scenes. The emotions were crystal clear and any audience member, new or old, could connect with them. The familiar sound of Hollywood acted as a gateway into the world of classical music. 

The latter section of the concert began moody and atmospheric, entering the black and white “Citizen Kane” (1941) in a shadowy murmur. A thick fog of low brass sound slowly engulfed the entire stage. The group’s releases soared up into the ceiling of the Granada. The sound enveloped the audience and then flew upward despite the dark timbre they had. The musicians were so versatile, a testament to the skill professionals have in organizations and in freelancing.

Now, there is one element of the night that fell completely flat in a night of wonderful sights and sounds, and that is “An American in Paris” (1951). 

The scene that was shown to the patrons was not conducive to having an orchestra musically accompany it. As such, they sat tacet with the scene playing above. It was a clear disconnect to the vision that was so thoughtfully executed the rest of the night. Seeing the musicians sit there, while a long clip from the movie was played above, was puzzling. The mission of the evening was to present the orchestra and screen in union, something they excelled phenomenally at, not to see a movie. At all other points in the night, there was clear cohesion and why the program decided to take an abrupt change is unknown and unfortunate. This was the lowest point of the evening, but it was not a reflection of the talent the orchestra had on stage, only a reflection of a poor program oversight — something that is hopefully not repeated.

 Luckily, the highs of the next, and final, film were enough to cast out any shadows that entered the mind during “An American in Paris.”

The symphony’s rendition of “The Wizard of Oz” (1939) gave goosebumps. Beyond the rainbow was a sonic environment that was fun, joyous and beautiful. A place where one’s mind could wander and dance down the yellow brick road as the orchestra played with intense joy. It was the orchestra at its most indulgent and pure. The sound swirled around, like the twister from the film, and lifted the audience into the world of Oz, where lions are cowardly and monkeys fly. It was hard to wipe the smile off my face and not be entranced by the soaring melodies and grandeur. 

It also reminded the audience (and me) that there truly is no other city like Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara and its deep connection to Hollywood is readily apparent, but it is also separate and unique from Los Angeles. The city is full of art everywhere you look and the symphony is no exception. Full of strong musicians and staff who care deeply about the music education of young children, the symphony is a keystone of the community and the artistic culture that permeates downtown State Street.

In its showcase of the best of Hollywood cinema and scoring, the Santa Barbara Symphony reminds all of us that “there is no place like home,” and the center of art that we are.

The Santa Barbara Symphony returns to the Granada Theatre on April 20-21 as they perform a concerto for klezmer clarinet and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, “Titan,” in “Mahler Meets Klezmer: Titans of Sound.”