Hans Zimmer in NYC: A Creative Take on Live Cinematic Orchestra

For decades, Hans Zimmer spent most of his time hunched over in a dark, windowless room.

        One of Hollywood’s most prolific and highly esteemed film composers, the Oscar-winning 59-year-old has arranged the iconic soundtracks for some 133 movies—from cinema staples, such as “The Lion King” (1994) and “Rain Man” (1988), to more recent box office hits in the likes of “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “Interstellar” (2014).

        He had consigned himself to the quiet life in studio recording rooms until a conversation with The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr and pop musician Pharrell Williams—both of whom Zimmer had collaborated with—made him think twice.

“At one point or another, all these musicians [I’ve worked with] said, ‘You have to stop hiding behind a screen. You owe it to an audience to get out on stage and look them in the eye,’” Zimmer said in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times. “I thought, if not now, when?”

        His wildly successful European tour in 2016 prompted an invitation to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the United States in April the following year, and this success generated enough demand to launch a North-American leg of his tour.

        Among the final shows on his tour were two phenomenal nights (July 25 and 26) in New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

        The stage was brightly lit and tightly packed—at least 50 musicians of varied nationalities and ages filled their own niche on the risers—with the choir lined across the top level, the orchestra and band in the center, and three full drumsets scattered throughout. The vocalists and soloists, along with Zimmer, were planted at the lowest level.

        Dressed in a purple-tinted vest and plain white shirt with polo shoes, Zimmer took his place at the piano in the center of the stage, smiling brightly. Throughout the night, he rotated among the organ, acoustic and electric guitar, piano, and banjo, often in mid-song, without glancing at a single sheet of music.

        He wasn’t another orchestra conductor in an uptight suit with his back to the audience, but a musician enjoying the camaraderie of a family—he just happened to have written the scores.

        The show opened confidently, with cheerful, crowd-pleasing pieces and all of the instrumentalists of his musical team playing as a mellifluous whole. Seamlessly, the band transitioned into the high-energy Crimson Angels medley. The volume intensified and white strobe lights started flashing, building up to an incredible five-minute, three-man drum solo that shook the walls of Radio City.

        As if the thunderous applause were his cue, Hans Zimmer hopped to the edge of the stage with his arms stretched widely, warmly greeting New York City with his German accent. He kicked off his introductions with accolades for the drummers, drawing another round of applause, and raving about New York’s delicious pizza.

The crowd went wild with the sudden appearance of Lebohang Morake, the original South African vocalist of the “Lion King” soundtrack, from the right wing of the stage, belting the opening verse to “The Circle of Life.”

No introductions were necessary; this had been the soundtrack of our childhoods, and Zimmer didn’t miss a beat. He had changed into a simple black t-shirt and hugged the vocalist warmly, joking about how he was much better off singing than ruining cars at the car wash he had been working at before landing the recording gig.

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” medley, starring electric cellist Tina Guo and violinists Molly Rogers and Leah Zeger, was one of the highlights of the evening. Passion sobered with playfulness radiated from each stroke of their bows. The cellist began with a classical sound and quickly layered the pieces with electronic textures, demonstrating Zimmer’s uncanny knack for integrating the orchestral sound with newer technology.

Surprises were a common theme in Zimmer’s concert: the night was a glissando of rapid crescendo followed by sudden decrescendo, sharp classical accompanying heavy rock.

Post-intermission, the legendary Guthrie Govan and Johnny Marr stepped up to the plate with their thumping bass and screeching electric guitar on full blast for the “Wonder Woman” theme, marking the climax of the show.

The visuals peaked as well: above the stage, the LED screen, which had previously displayed nondescript lines and shapes with simple color schemes, began churning out psychedelic spirals, and the lights, manned by Marc Brickman (Pink Floyd’s famed lighting director), flickered in an almost unbelievably fast lick.

Not a single movie scene appeared on the screen; in fact, the number of movies Zimmer named could be counted on one hand.

His goal was not to link the music to the movie, but to the musicians. We always pay more attention to the film than to its soundtrack, and Zimmer flipped the script. He gave his scores legs of their own, and the audience had the freedom to project uniquely personal emotions and memories onto his music.

Perhaps the most enduring part of Zimmer’s concert was not his music, but his stories. Rambling into several intimate, and often humorous, anecdotes on the quirks of composing for Hollywood, he lowered himself from the pedestal of an ‘untouchable’ deity of film music by making himself relatable.

Before the ethereal organ sounds of “Interstellar” rounded off the set list, Hans Zimmer vulnerably shared about “Aurora,” his touching musical tribute to the lives lost in a Colorado movie theater shooting during a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“I had one word: devastated. And all day, I was thinking about the victims and how a word is just not enough…[“Aurora” is] a piece of music that uses no words, but it should feel as if we’re stretching our arms out, and we’re reaching across the Atlantic and embracing the loved ones left behind,” he said.

We had done nothing but listen and applaud in our seats all evening, but Zimmer made us feel like we were an essential part of something meaningful.   

“When all is said and done and we’ve filled the highest high rises and we’ve built the fastest machines, there’s still going to be room for somebody to tell you a story or somebody to write you a piece of music,” he once said.

Hans Zimmer bid goodnight to New York and left the stage, only to reappear to a roaring audience for the encore: “Inception.”

The final piece of the evening was played on a dark stage, reminiscent of the studio room that Hans Zimmer had briefly left behind in order to perform. With a single spotlight on him, the film composer sat alone at the piano for the heartbreaking final chords of “Time”—the only moment he played without the rest of his band and orchestra.  

He high-fived every single person on stage, dramatically air-high-fived the audience, then disappeared into the dark shadows backstage before the applause had even ended.

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