Prague's soundtrack factory

Skilled musicians – and favorable economics – lure filmmakers to this ad hoc symphony for new scores.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Musicians from several of their city’s five symphony orchestras gather at Prague’s Barrandov Studio to record soundtracks for films – including a rerecording of the score from the 1961 movie ‘El Cid’, with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.
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    The score for 'El Cid', 1961, with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, was recorded in Prague.
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A procession of Roman Legion-looking riders, with helmets and colorful flags, gallops over an open plain as the orchestra music builds to a crescendo. As the scene changes, two lovers (Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren) look into each other's eyes. The riders appear over the horizon, and ....

"Stop there, Nic," says James Fitzpatrick. "Can we do bars 99 to 105 again, please?"

Mr. Fitzpatrick counts the bars carefully on his score of the 1961 movie "El Cid" – back to the main love theme, where the violin solo soars above the orchestra.

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Conductor Nic Raine's voice comes through speakers in the production booth. Fitzpatrick looks back and forth between the movie, paused on an oversized flat-screen TV, and the music, making sure he coordinates violin solo with scene.

Recording soundtracks is all in a day's work for Fitzpatrick, owner of Tadlow Music, a recording company based in London. He routinely hires a complete orchestra from the list he keeps of 600 or so top-notch classical musicians in the five symphony orchestras here in Prague.

Hollywood, too, has come calling, lured by favorable economics and talent.

These musicians – pulled together in various configurations to form an ad hoc symphony without a name of its own – draw quite a crowd. They have collaborated with David Lynch on "Mulholland Drive," with Thomas Newman on "American Beauty," and with Johnny Depp on "Sweeney Todd." Classical music greats such as Sarah Brightman, Shirley Bassey, and David Arnold (who composes the James Bond scores) have all recorded here.

Masters of sight-reading

"The quality gets better every year," says Rick Clark, a producer at Silva Screen Records in London, who is in town recording video-game music. "They nail it the first time. It's spot-on, it's so good." (Silva Screen also used Prague musicians to record the score for "The Queen.")

It wasn't always this easy. Fitzpatrick remembers first recording "Funeral March for a Marionette" (the theme for "Alfred Hitchcock Presents") in 1991 and thinking the assembled musicians sounded worse than a struggling high school grouping.

But things go more quickly these days, and the players have learned to sight-read unusual movie scoring.

"Every member of the orchestra plays with full heart and full passion here," Fitzpatrick says. "Sometimes in London it seems like they don't even try."

There are other pluses to the Prague arrangement: Musicians are happy to be paid the $20 or so per hour offered by clients. (In London, musicians make more than $90 per hour; in the United States, the price can be as high as $140.)

Violinist Jakub Hron says he already has a union position with the Prague Radio Orchestra, but since the recording sessions are a "side job" he doesn't have high expectations. (Both Fitzpatrick and Silva have the musicians sign "buyout clauses" that give the production companies full rights to any royalties.)

Extra earnings, and a chance to roam

While Mr. Hron declines to say how much he makes at the symphony, the average Czech salary has risen rapidly in recent years to about $1,000 per month.

"This is 'plus' money," Hron says. "Obviously the orchestra is more prestigious, but this is good, too."

Many of the players in the room also feel close to Fitzpatrick because of the opportunities he has given them, says Andre Addeh, who moved here eight years ago after playing with an orchestra in Brno, the Czech Republic's No. 2 city.

"We're doing a German tour now with James [Fitzpatrick]," says Mr. Addeh, who is headed to Hamburg for a performance. "It's not only the money, but this is more interesting."

Barrandov Studio's sound stage feels a bit like something you remember from high school – walls buffered with retro- looking soundproofing and microphones scattered around the room. But here, a translator stands next to the conductor, shouting out directions in Czech and conferring with individual musicians.

Copyright is seldom an issue on the pieces the orchestra performs, Fitzpatrick says, adding that he gets most "cleared over the phone" with a record company, depending on licensing arrangements.

In the case of "El Cid," Fitzpatrick and Raine made an agreement with the family of the late Miklós Rózsa, a friend of Raine's. The two hope the rerecording, with more romantic scoring arrangements, will be a hit with old-movie-score buffs.

"With soundtrack albums, if they re-record it, they don't necessarily need to worry about copyright," says Steve Gordon, an entertainment lawyer in New York. "You need the composer's permission and often you have to get the record company."

More money to musicians

But the biggest reason to record in Prague is to save on future royalty fees.

"You pay the musicians," says Mr. Gordon, "so you don't have to pay the record company."

The comparatively low cost of hiring Czech musicians could soon rise, however, as the dollar continues to fall against the Czech crown. Both music and movie industry heads are already lamenting the drop in American business in Prague.

"El Cid" is a personal project in which Fitzpatrick says he has invested an estimated $80,000, hoping that enthusiasts will snap up copies.

For now, the price difference still makes it profitable for him to fly back and forth between Prague and London to record.

"If Beethoven or Mozart were alive now," Fitzpatrick says, "they would be doing film scores."

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