The Cal State Fullerton University Singers stood on the immense stage of the Hollywood Bowl behind a nearly 100-piece orchestra. They replaced the originally recorded soundtrack from J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” by harmonizing the epic theme with a sea of instruments as the sci-fi film opened on a giant screen above them.
The CSUF University Singers watched thousands of audience members intently view the film as its music stole the spotlight. The musicians’ precise brass and strings replaced the original recording and synchronized with dialogue and sound effects.
“It’s like you’re in the music, but you’re separated from what’s going on on the screen,” said University Singer and CSUF vocal performance student Vanessa Yearsley. “You can see the way the audience is directly affected by what we’re doing.”
The CSUF University Singers are composed of 33 students, and each has competitively auditioned for a spot in the choir. The ensemble is directed by CSUF alumnus and professor Robert Istad who’s taught conducting at CSUF for 12 years.
CineConcerts has been bringing movie scores synchronized with films to a live audience since its first performance of “Gladiator” in 2013.
“Film music is really artistic. I think it has become this major genre,” Istad said. “It’s a way to introduce people to symphonic repertoire with something familiar that they know and love.”
University Singer and CSUF music education major Sammy Salvador enjoys seeing how composers play with the various themes of movies’ scores.
“In these situations, we’re another instrument in the orchestra. And we have to remember that, when we’re singing, we can’t try to overpower the orchestra because that’s not our role,” Salvador said.
In CineConcerts, the University Singers become part of the orchestra. At their other concerts, the orchestra accompanies them separately, and the choir takes center stage.
The University Singers will continue their exploration of Hollywood’s famous compositions with the Pacific Symphony as the ensemble takes on John Williams’ magical melodies from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” Oct. 6 and 7 at the Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. Some of the singers previously played the same concert at the Hollywood Bowl over summer.
Founder of CineConcerts, Justin Freer will conduct the choir at the concert. Freer is currently taking the Harry Potter Film Concert Series around the world, progressing through a tour of every film in its franchise.
“(CineConcerts) was founded with the principal goal in mind to preserve as much of the great music in our craft in a live and visceral way,” Freer said. “I think what can sometimes be regarded as a role that is perhaps in the background is all of a sudden in the foreground in a very big way. So it’s very exciting.”
The University Singers were conducted by Williams himself when they helped record a new rendition of “Hymn to the Fallen” from “Saving Private Ryan” and “Dry Your Tears Africa” from “Amistad” for the album “John Williams & Steven Spielberg: The Ultimate Collection” in October 2016 at UCLA. Spielberg excitedly took pictures of them on his phone while they recorded the songs.
“What they told us is that John Williams is reaching his retirement. So this was going to be one of the last recordings with him conducting his own music,” Yearsley said.
Williams was gracious toward the University Singers and he wrote them a signed thank you letter which now sits in Istad’s office.
Aside from bringing film music to life, the University Singers rehearse in the Clayes Performing Arts Center twice a week.
The singers are working on their tour pieces for Nov. 4, which includes a piece that will be performed with a social justice component called “To the Hands” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw.
“(The piece is about) society’s hands lifting up the homeless and (Shaw) connects those ideas so beautifully,” Salvador said. “Even though it’s technically about homelessness, that piece just screams immigration, refugees and solace in our country.”
As the University Singers get ready for their concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Istad believes these popular, live film score concerts will ignite an interest from audiences to support the university’s music programs.
“Hopefully the people who come and hear us realize how many talented, incredibly professional musicians it takes to bring something like that to life,” Istad said. “Maybe they might be curious and hear the symphony, the Pacific Choral or come to Cal State Fullerton.”