The Mann Center for the Performing Arts has been the City of Brotherly Love’s summer residence for the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1976. Following its bicentennial debut, the amphitheater has hosted the esteemed symphony and a cavalcade of artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Squeeze. Since 2010 the Philadelphia Orchestra has gradually turned the Fairmount Park facility into an unexpected superlative: the best movie theater in Philadelphia.
This summer the orchestra has performed the score to select films while a movie simultaneously plays on big screens. The events have a relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere that is fostered by the Mann’s decision to allow picnics into the venue for these evenings. From the crest of a hill in Fairmount Park you can gaze at the Philadelphia skyline or look into the summer night as you listen to the dialogue from your favorite movies backed by one of the world’s most respected symphonies. You cannot find a greater experience for enjoying a movie anywhere else in the city.
The 2017 series is not the Philadelphia Orchestra’s first dalliance with the cinema. The symphony recorded the score to the 1940 Walt Disney spectacular, Fantasia (they also performed the soundtrack during a screening of the film at the Mann in 2013). After the orchestra served as the companion to Planet Earth in 2010, the Russian National Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra have also provided a live soundtrack during movies at the Mann. The Philadelphia Orchestra began a more regular film series in the summer of 2014.
Not unlike its soundtrack for Mickey Mouse’s most sophisticated flick, the orchestra adds an amazing quality to the films it accompanies at the Mann. For once you do not merely hear the violins or the timpani drums, but you feel the piercing pitches of the strings and the rumble of the percussive sound during the movie. On June 24, members of the orchestra performed the score to the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Return of the King. The symphony’s sound was augmented by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Boys Choir. Even from the far reaches of the Mann Center’s lawn, the ensemble’s rendition of Howard Shore’s music changed how even this classical music pleb enjoyed the movie.
Perhaps the best example of the conjoining majesty of film and music occurred as Gandalf rode his white steed Shadowfax across the plain from Minas Tirith to Osgiliath to shoo away a gaggle of flying Nazgul. While the wizard and his horse galloped on the screen, a member of the Boys Choir delivered a beautiful vocal solo. The awe of the moment only waned when Gandalf warded off the hideous creatures and the solo was completed. In a normal screening, the audience would have just cheered Ian McKellen’s White Wizard, but in this instance the member of the choir was the one applauded by the crowd.
Gandalf rides Shadowfax from Minas Tirath to Osgiliath
Moments like this happened several times for both this event and the 2016 showing of the film’s predecessor, The Two Towers. Many of those in attendance are clearly fans of the movies and add a dash of enthusiasm. From a man dressed as Gandalf, women wearing Elf costumes, and little girls adorned in princess attire, the concert series is for filmgoers as much as it is for fans of the orchestra. During The Return of the King the audience erupted just as often for on-screen moments as it did for the music.
Despite the presence of one of the most beloved film franchises in history, the star of this event was the Philadelphia Orchestra and its companion groups. Even though the orchestra succeeds in staying in the background throughout much of the film, the instances when a particularly beautiful piece of music or vocal solo take place are the defining part of the night. Many people who are at the Mann have likely seen at least some of the Lord of the Rings trilogy before, but not like this. The facility and musical ensemble combine for an unmatched moviegoing experience that changes how the movie is watched that cannot be found anywhere else in Philadelphia.