Berklee + Pops + Vampire

Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart (front, left) presents student composers (left to right) Emily Joseph, Amit May Cohen, Joy Ngiaw, Matthew Morris, Elena Nezhelskaya, Jungwan “Wani” Han, Hyunsoo Nam, and Victor Kong at Boston’s Symphony Hall.
Hilary Scott

As a warm-up to Halloween, professor Sheldon Mirowitz and eight of his top film scoring students collaborated with conductor Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra to produce the music for a sold-out, silent film concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall on October 30. Based on themes and a structure designed by Mirowitz, the young composers created a grand symphonic score for the 1922 silent movie classic Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror. The performance marked the first silent film concert in the histories of both the Boston Pops and Symphony Hall.

Nosferatu is universally acknowledged not only as the greatest silent horror film, but also as one of the most influential films of all time,” said Lockhart of the movie by German director F.W. Murnau. “So creating a full symphonic score to this iconic cinematic masterpiece is a daunting undertaking.” Tackling the storyline—based on the tale of Dracula by Bram Stoker and portrayed in grainy black-and-white images—afforded the composers the use of historical as well as contemporary film music techniques to enhance the onscreen action. Lockhart, whom president Roger Brown described as a “great conductor with the heart of a great teacher,” gave generously of his time to the student composers in the months prior to the performance to finalize details of the score. Lockhart called the undertaking “the most significant project the Pops has done with student-created music.”

The composers augmented the symphonic instrumentation with the eerie sounds of a theremin, played by Rob Schwimmer, one of the world’s top theremin virtuosi. His performance of the score’s spookiest lines added significantly to the suspense—especially in a chilling scene in which Count Orlok (the main character) rises up in his coffin. Also augmenting the orchestra was professor Michael Bierylo playing a Moog System 55 Modular Synthesizer to provide electronic support to the low end.

The cues ran the gamut from lighthearted and poignant in romantic scenes involving protagonist Hutter and his wife, Ellen, to dark, ominous sonorities exuding great tension. Humorous touches appeared in a scene with horses where the composer employed neighing sounds from the brass section. Prickly string pizzicatti accompanied a shot on the ghost ship as rats swarmed out of the ship’s hold.

The music was continuous, making this a 94-minute endurance feat for the musicians and Lockhart who kept his players in sync. After the show, Lockhart brought Mirowitz and the students onstage. Taking final bows amid loud applause were composers Amit Cohen (Israel), Jungwan “Wani” Han (South Korea), Emily Joseph (United States), Victor Kong (Malaysia), Matthew Morris (Canada), Hyunsoo Nam (South Korea), Elena Nezhelskaya (Russia), and Joy Ngiaw (Malaysia).

“The first nine scores by the student composers taking my Scoring Silent Films course have been premiered by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra at the Coolidge Corner Theater,” Sheldon Mirowitz told the audience in the packed house. “But tonight our students have graduated to the Pops.”

“Our goal all along was to collaborate with the Pops to create a heavy-duty learning experience for our composers that could not be equaled,” said Rob Hayes, assistant vice president and managing director of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. “We had the utmost from maestro Lockhart and from every person involved. It took no less to bring this performance to 2,600 people, creeping out in the dark together, in one of the world’s best concert halls.