Looks like Tom and Jerry won't be all, folks

Posted: April 05, 2007

Trumpeter Rodney Mack is laying out "Chocolate," the Spanish dance from The Nutcracker, with his fine, fat sound. The interpretation is ideal, and yet conductor Dirk Brossé looks over to the man at the computer screen to see what's gone wrong.

"You're not with the click," says the the music editor at the computer, referring to the click track that's dictating the pace of the music. "You fell off the click," he tells the maestro.

"We hate when that happens," whispers Warner Bros. Pictures vice president Suzi Civita with a wry crackle in her voice, taking a quarter-note rest from her BlackBerry.

She can afford a little humor. Civita, in charge of music for Warner Bros., is supervising the recording of a sound track, and though she usually works with seasoned studio musicians in Los Angeles, she's in Philadelphia this week, acting like she's struck gold.

"They sound just amazing. The players here are every bit as good," she says.

And cheaper, which is why there's a bit of a buzz right now in her industry about Philadelphia's offering what she calls a new "template" for recording orchestral sound tracks.

The players are from the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, which, in its four-plus decades, has braved obscure baroque concerti and risked artistic capital on unseen scores from emergent composers. On a sunny afternoon this week in a Lutheran church on Chestnut Street, the ensemble ventured into even riskier territory: Tom and Jerry. Philadelphia's small orchestra will be heard on Tom and Jerry: Nutcracker Tale, a 60-minute direct-to-DVD release slated for distribution at Christmastime.

The music is almost exclusively drawn from the famous Tchaikovsky score, with one added song and three bars of non-Tchaikovsky transitional material.

It's the Chamber Orchestra's first sound track, and the group's newly arrived executive director, Peter H. Gistelinck, 44, is confident that more are on the way. He says he's already talking to Warner about two other films.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to profile the orchestra nationally," says the Brussels native, who took over the Chamber Orchestra in September after three years as director of sales and marketing and co-artistic director of the Flemish Radio Orchestra and Choir. It's part of what he calls a four-year strategic plan to "put the orchestra on the map."

Among the imminent developments, he said, are European and U.S. tours, and a four-year recording deal with a "major independent label in Europe."

Such activities, he says, are good for the organization. "You put these things out there and the energy comes back to the concerts. Always it comes back to Philadelphia."

Film work is familiar to him. While Gistelinck was working for the Flemish orchestra, that ensemble provided the sound track to Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.

Tom and Jerry does not represent a lot of money for the Chamber Orchestra, he says. It's a nice piece of work for the players, who get union scale, but he does not expect sound track work to become a major revenue stream for the ensemble itself. "The most important thing is for us to get our name out there."

For this score, the group has beefed up to about 55 players (core musicians of the Chamber Orchestra plus about 20 regular substitutes). They worked in nine hours of recording sessions, wearing headphones with only one cup so they could hear both the click track and each other. Many microphones are used - about two dozen - so sound engineers can easily mix the sound later.

The conductor watches a computer showing the animation - drawn mostly by hand and fully executed in Korea - while trying to time his gestures to the clicks he hears. The idea obviously is to ensure that, in the classic cartoon moment, a big climax in the music arrives just as a pile of bricks falls on a toy horse.

It can be tricky. The clicks are not paced regularly; Warner technicians had listened to Nutcracker recordings made by other orchestras and laid down clicks to follow speed-ups and slow-downs in the score.

"It's playing music in a prison and having fun, because a click track is a kind of prison," says conductor Brossé, another Belgian who has known Gistelinck for many years. (Brossé, who conducted the sound track to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, is scheduled to return to the Chamber Orchestra next season to lead it in subscription performances of Mahler).

Signing the Chamber Orchestra to do this score was a recent development; until about three months ago, Warner was set to use another group. After that ensemble pulled out, Civita considered hiring an orchestra in Bratislava or Prague, where musicians work quite cheaply. But, "unlike in the U.S., believe it or not, Nutcracker is not familiar repertoire there," said Civita.

Los Angeles, New York and London were out of the question, she said. Why?

"Premiums," she said. The number of sound stages has diminished, and the demand for orchestra work is higher than the supply. "Premiums mean that we're dealing with double and triple scale."

Through contacts at Columbia Artists Management Inc. she heard about the Chamber Orchestra and Gistelinck, who knew agents there.

"I'd heard of Curtis," she said of the school where many of the musicians were trained, "but I never put it together with Philadelphia. It's destiny."

Would she reengage the ensemble?

"I would in a heartbeat," she said, pointing to the quality of the players.

Then she added, with a Hollywoodian flourish, "It's almost like Tchaikovsky wrote the music for Tom and Jerry."


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/peterdobrin.

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