Grand Rapids Symphony to perform "The Godfather" score live in Ann Arbor screening

This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

"I'm sure people know this, but this is not a movie that you bring your kids to," says John Varineau, conductor of the Grand Rapids Symphony. "There is a whole lot of killing going on in this movie."
On Jan. 7, the Grand Rapids Symphony will accompany a live screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s "The Godfather" at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave. in Ann Arbor, sponsored by the University Musical Society (UMS).
According to Varineau, who has led the Grand Rapids Symphony for more than three decades, conducting a live score to a film "is a totally different art form than conducting a symphony or a concerto."
"The film waits for no man or woman," Varineau says. "The film keeps rolling, so you have to keep up."
The score to "The Godfather" was written by the acclaimed Italian composer Nino Rota, who scored films for Federico Fellini and other renowned directors. In 1974, Rota won the Academy Award for Best Original Score for "The Godfather Part II."
"I think it's safe to say that Rota’s score is another reason why this is considered one of the most essential films of the 20th century," says Mark Jacobson, vice president of programming and production at UMS.
Varineau says the richness of Rota’s score appeals to him. His favorite musical element is "The Godfather Waltz," the score’s main theme, which is repeated throughout the film in various arrangements.
"It's a very melancholy sort of tune," Varineau says.
Varineau is also quick to point out a seemingly impossible contradiction at the heart of the film’s score.
"A lot of it’s very lush," he says, but at the same time, "… it’s very sparsely done."
Rota "didn’t want [the score] to get in the way of dialogue," Varineau says. "It's really a mood-setting sort of music … [that] really fits the darkness of the film."
Jacobson is eager for audiences to experience the performance.

"The experience is so much more enveloping than hearing a soundtrack pumped out of speakers," he says. "You're getting the actual gut sounds of the string instruments. You’re hearing the reverberations of the sounds coming off of the violins and cellos and violas and basses. I think it does create a heightened awareness of the music."
"We only get one crack at it," Varineau says. "If something doesn't go right, we can't say, ‘Stop the film — let's start again and take another run at it.’ So we're putting the thrill of the victory and the agony of defeat right into real time with the movie."
The difficulty, Varineau adds, comes from staying in stride with the film and maintaining a very specific, and unalterable, pace.
"When you're conducting a symphony or a concerto, maybe a soloist wants to take a little bit of time here, wants to push the tempo there. It's a very live and fluid thing," he says. "That just doesn't happen in a film. You have to keep up."
Adhering to these specific constraints means Varineau winds up locked in to the choices made by the film’s original conductor. In his own way, he’s not unlike an actor with a script to follow and cues to obey.
"There are times when maybe I would like to take a little bit more time, a little bit more rubato," he says, using a musical term for a conductor or soloist's creative license to slightly manipulate the tempo of a piece. "But sorry, the film goes on."
However, Varineau has an outstanding ensemble with which to take on this challenge. He calls the Grand Rapids Symphony "one of the gems in the state."
"I just really respect the integrity with which they approach the music," he says.
According to Jacobson, the screening was a "real natural collaboration" for UMS and the Grand Rapids Symphony.
"It was like all the puzzle pieces fit into place," he says. "It just felt right."
"Audiences are really in for a treat to experience this score live by an orchestra of the caliber of Grand Rapids Symphony and the caliber of Nino Rota’s score alongside an enormous screening of one of the great films for the 20th century," Jacobson adds. "[It] just seemed like an opportunity not to be missed."

Tickets to the performance are available here.

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photo courtesy of UMS.
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