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John Williams, Chicago Symphony Orchestra team up for ‘Lincoln’ soundtrack

Daniel Day Lewis as Abe Lincoln 'Lincoln.'

Daniel Day Lewis as Abe Lincoln in "Lincoln."

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Updated: December 21, 2012 6:16AM

In January 2011, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra received an unexpected inquiry.

Would it be interested in collaborating with Academy Award-winning composer and conductor John Williams on a recording of his soundtrack for director Steven Spielberg’s film, “Lincoln”?

Even for an orchestra that has toured internationally, worked with hundreds of top solo artists and made scores of recordings, it was an amazing opportunity — one that symphony leaders quickly seized.

“It’s thrilling to be part of a Steven Spielberg-John Williams film,” said Vanessa Moss, the CSO’s vice president of operations about “Lincoln,” now in theaters. “It was a really wonderful project.”

But given the CSO’s complex schedule, which is booked years in advance, it was not easy to pull off. Working with the musicians, Moss managed to carve out an open week at the beginning of May 2012 right after the orchestra returned from a tour to Russia and Italy.

“We had to move around a few things, but we had time available at the time they were interested in recording,” she said. “The stars were aligned, because for us to find this kind of time is really hard. But it worked.”

Considering that Williams, who has written the music for such blockbusters as “Jaws” (1975), “Star Wars” (1977) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) (and the other “Indy” films), is this country’s best-known film composer, he could have worked with any orchestra in the world. It seems clear that he picked the CSO because of Lincoln’s strong ties to Illinois.

“I think there is a kind of poetic connection between the president from Illinois and the orchestra from Illinois,” Moss said. “It is a very Illinois story in some sense, and I think that was important.”

In the end, the CSO and Chorus took about four days to record the music in Orchestra Hall — an experience that two musicians who have solos on the soundtrack (on Sony Classical) describe as an unforgettable opportunity.

“I told my wife that when my whole career is said and done, whether it’s in one year or 10 years or 30 years, I’ll look back and this will truly be one of the top three or four highlights of my whole life,” said principal trumpeter Christopher Martin, a fan of Williams’ music since childhood.

“Lincoln,” which is based in part on a book by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, explores the difficult final months of the 16th president’s life as he presses to end the Civil War and ban slavery.

Williams’ folk-flavored, Coplandesque music has an appropriately somber, sometimes even elegiac quality. Unlike some of his other films, where the music is prominently featured, it plays a more subtle, intimate role here, keeping the focus on the pivotal words and action.

“I think that’s why John Williams and Spielberg really didn’t want to do too much to distract you,” said principal clarinetist Stephen Williamson. “The music just complements what is happening. It draws you in but it doesn’t overwhelm you.”

The CSO performs with Williams, a familiar guest conductor here, every other year or so. Usually, sessions with the composer-conductor (winner of five Oscars) are relaxed, Martin said, because he is easygoing and the orchestra is familiar with his music.

“In the sessions,” Martin said, “he was still easygoing, but there were moments when it was quite clear that this needs to happen now, we need this take now.”

Before each musical section, Williams carefully explained what was happening in the scene it was to accompany and the feeling that he was trying to convey.

While all the music was finished before the recording sessions, the composer sometimes wrote new bits overnight and made some changes on the spot.

Williams would conduct a section and then stop and confer with Spielberg, with whom he has collaborated for 40 years. The director took part in the entire recording process, watching each scene on a monitor as the music for it was performed.

At one point, Martin recalled, Spielberg said he wanted a passage to sound nostalgic but not so sad or sappy.

“So John would think for a moment — five seconds,” Martin said, “and then he would say, ‘OK, let’s have no bassoon here.’ Or, ‘Let’s have no horn in this passage.’ And we would play it again, and he’d look at Spielberg, and they’d either agree or they’d try something different.”

Also attending the recording session was actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who takes on the title role in the film.

“It wasn’t like he just showed up to say hi and goodbye,” said Williamson, who has played on many film soundtracks. “I’ve seen that with many actors who have been on a film. Oh, here’s Tom Cruise. Or De Niro will walk in for a recording session. They show up, and then they leave.”

But Day-Lewis stayed all four days, not taking part directly in what was happening but listening and drinking everything in.

“I think we all felt inspired,” Williamson said. “Wow, that’s Daniel Day-Lewis. There’s Steven Spielberg, and, of course, John Williams. Not that we wouldn’t give our all every time, but it just made it that much more special.”

Kyle MacMillan is a free-lance writer.

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