John Jesensky will never forget his first symphony concert; an event at the famed Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Hills, featuring the great film music composer John Williams.
Decades later, the Connecticut-raised musician and composer is conducting Williams’ music himself, wielding his baton like a wand as he guides Symphony Nova Scotia through the wondrous score for Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone accompanying the film itself on a huge screen at Scotiabank Centre on Friday, Nov. 15.
“That concert opened my eyes to how great orchestral performance was, and it wasn’t all people wearing tuxedos and monocles, sipping martinis the whole time,” chuckles Jesensky, who now tours across North America to conduct symphonic shows for the U.S. production company CineConcerts.
“It was very much the people’s music, and the symphony was very happy to have everyone out there. It really is an unmatched experience, hearing a live orchestra perform.”
Jesensky graduated from New York University, where he studied with noted film composer Ira Newborn (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Naked Gun) and received the Elmer Bernstein Award for Film Composition. By that time, he was already a fan of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and the feature films that followed, despite having a skeptical attitude about them when the books debuted while he was in high school.
“I wanted to be a contrarian and said I wasn’t going to read those, everybody was reading those, I was going to stick to my Stephen King books,” he recalls. “But my little brother had the first two, that was all that was out at the time, and I’d walk by his room and they’d catch my eye with their very colourful covers.
“One day, I finally grabbed the first one to see what this was all about, and I figured I’d probably read 20 pages and put it back, thinking it was the silliest thing ever. Cut to two hours later and I’d finished the first book and was ready for the second one.”
Jesensky credits J.K. Rowling’s ability to hook readers into the world she created, and couldn’t wait to see how they’d translate to the screen. When the first film Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone, as it was retitled in the U.S.) arrived in 2001, with Williams providing the sweeping score for that first train journey to Hogwart’s Academy and the first depiction of the airborne game of Quidditch, he wasn’t disappointed.
“For this series to still be going is quite phenomenal,” he says. “I think a large part of what creates that sense of magic and fantasy that keeps it going and keeps it fresh for people is John Williams’ music.
“He’s been such a big part of these gigantic franchises, but he always takes full advantage of his new opportunities on the screen, and creates something special that certainly elevates them.”
Williams’ name and melodies go hand-in-hand with Hollywood’s biggest film franchises, including Star Wars, the Indiana Jones saga and Jurassic Park, as well as memorable titles ranging from Jaws to Schindler’s List. It’s hard to imagine someone who hasn’t experienced his music, having scored some of the most popular films of all time, and Jesensky has heard most of it.
He remembers going to see Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone four times in the theatre in one week, just to take in what Williams could do to bring the story and scenes to life. He took special note of how the composer focused on the internal feelings of the characters, and didn’t just “Mickey Mouse” the music to match the actions taking place onscreen.
“By that point, I’d become a musician and I had an inkling that I wanted to write music. I really liked improvising and playing the piano, and I wanted to create,” recalls the conductor.
“I wasn’t sure that I wanted to be a film composer, that thought hadn’t occurred to me, but I did while seeing Harry Potter — believe it or not — and getting that absolutely magnificent wave of emotion that takes you away through the music.”
Jesensky began conducting with CineConcerts when he was handed the assignment of handling a symphonic screening of The Godfather, four days before a concert in Montreal. The Harry Potter Film Concert Series began in 2016, in partnership with the films’ producer Warner Bros., and he’s “bounced around the series” ever since, although he considers presenting the first of the films like “returning to an old friend” as Williams’ score works its magic on him once more.
“I’m constantly giddy every time I conduct this music, I just want to turn around to the audience to say, ‘Isn’t this cool?’ after every single movement in the movie.”
If you go: Tickets for Symphony Nova Scotia and CineConcerts’ presentation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are available from the Ticket Atlantic box office, www.ticketatlantic.com or 902-451-1221 and participating Atlantic Superstore outlets.