Philadelphia Orchestra's E.T. connects to world beyond - the classical canon

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Gertie (Drew Barrymore) says goodbye to E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The Philadelphia Orchestra performs the score live to screen this weekend.

Ever since art and entertainment started arriving in the same package, which in the case at hand means since the very beginning of film, there’s been a genuine toss-up over which force dominates the experience. For the Philadelphia Orchestra Friday night, playing live to a screening of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in Verizon Hall, entertainment won out, if just slightly.

Audiences today may wonder why instead of asking to phone home, E.T. didn’t just download the app. But nearly 35 years later, the story of a boy and his soulmate from across the stars still quickens the pulse.

The music does, too. For anyone caring to focus on John Williams' score, there’s a great deal more there than the signature upward-octave sweep as E.T. and Elliott glide on a bicycle before the rising moon. In at least a dozen stretches, film and score are inseparable.

The relatively small crowd Friday night (1,100 tickets were sold) meant the house didn’t have the same frisson generated by more than 10,000 Harry Potter fans this past summer at the Mann Center when the orchestra performed Williams’ score, also to screen, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Perhaps crowds for repeats Saturday and Sunday will be bigger. Audience contributes something important to live music.

But what does a live orchestra bring? After all, most movie theaters have a great sound system unleashed at terrifying volume. Some of the demands on orchestral players are steep; it's an open question how many listeners could tell just how wonderfully the orchestra and conductor Stéphane Denève filled out phrasing with contours of meaning.

But I'd like to think the talent wasn't falling on distracted ears. No question, the orchestra had presence. But even more, the low organ rumble (here played by Bryan Dunnewald) was at a level of foreboding not typical at the local multiplex. I don't recall from the film -- which I saw again at home on Netflix only a few weeks ago -- the same kind of creepiness I felt when the double-basses slid up and down the fingerboard as E.T. appeared to Elliott for the first time.

The unexpected power of a single low harp pluck; the solitude of a spare piccolo (a beautifully assured Niles Watson) used to unusual quiet effect; the chaos of a chase scene boiling over into the bizarre -- these are sounds to pull up emotion on a rare visceral level. 

The music extends a hand to purists. Williams connects to the classical canon with split-second references to Hovhaness, Barber and the mid-20th-century moderns. That last scene of E.T. finally leaving for home is all about emotional transfiguration -- human, alien and musical.

If Strauss can follow man into the afterlife (he also recommends an octave jump) or turn a woman into a tree (in Daphne), Williams knows that making an alien's fingertip light up should require no less skill, or swell with any less sense of wonder.