San Francisco Symphony’s Film with Live Orchestra series breathes new life into ‘Apollo 13’

Apollo 13 is a trademark and copyright of Universal Studios. Licensed by Universal Studios. All rights reserved./Courtesy

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A night at the movies and a night at the symphony are two very different experiences. One is casual, the other more upscale. There is certainly a difference in the accessibility of the two events. Undeniably, each offers the audience elements of entertainment the other cannot — or at least, not as well — so when you combine the two, as the San Francisco Symphony has done with its Film with Live Orchestra series, you truly get the best of both worlds.

One of the best things about attending a Film with Live Orchestra performance is that it necessitates a visit to Davies Symphony Hall, an architecturally exquisite concert hall serving as the permanent home for the San Francisco Symphony. Just being inside the elegant Davies Symphony Hall feels like a treat; the extravagant atmosphere perks up the ears and heart in eager anticipation for an evening of truly world-class music.

For this series, a giant screen was set up above the stage for the projection of the film. The symphony sits right below it; one only needs to lower their gaze slightly during the movie to witness a second, live show. Their latest performance was set to Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13,” with music by James Horner, conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos.

“Apollo 13” is a 1995 docudrama about the aborted Apollo 13 lunar mission, the third American mission intending to land on the moon. The film stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton as astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise respectively, and is so high-stakes, well-paced and anxiety-inducing that it kept viewers on the edge of their seats for the entirety of the second and third acts. The intermission offered some much-needed relief from the skillfully built-up tension.

The writing in “Apollo 13” is a fantastic balance of realistic yet exciting; in a film that is a clear dramatization of real events, the writing does not feel overly dramatic. This effectively sucks the audience into the world of the film and keeps them there, causing them to fully absorb the story and allowing the other successes in the film to be fully acknowledged and appreciated. What shines the brightest about “Apollo 13,” however, is the film’s incredible cast. Hanks in particular gives an excellent performance as a tender-hearted family man and brilliant, assertive mission commander. His chemistry with Bacon and Paxton — who both deliver fantastic performances themselves — makes the turbulent, emotional dynamic in the tiny lunar module believable, gutting and extra effective.

It’s a given that any performance from the San Francisco Symphony is going to be awe-inspiring. Despite not being the center of attention in the film and live orchestra series, it was still truly incredible to bear witness to so much talent coming from a single stage. Whatever the San Francisco Symphony plays, the musicians’ sheer skill, evidently built from years upon years of experience, radiates across the entire hall to create a first-tier listening experience.

Playing along to “Apollo 13,” the symphony brought a new, warming life to the film. The sheer coordination, effort and soul put into playing the film’s soundtrack made it sound utterly alive. Watching a film with a live concert performance was having the pleasure of enjoying two shows in one — when the symphony started playing, you had to turn away from the film and witness these musicians in action. There was a lot of eye darting and focus shifting throughout the evening, but both film and orchestra are delightful in their entirety; not knowing where to look was not so much a problem as it was a blessing.

Watching a film with a live orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall is an experience to cherish long after the evening is over. A fantastic combination of two viewing and listening experiences, this series from San Francisco Symphony offers a new layer of fun and enjoyment for movie lovers, symphony lovers and anyone lucky enough to have an opportunity to witness such talent for themselves.

Contact Joy Diamond at [email protected].