Last month, 20-year-old John O’Hara was in San Francisco with his classmates from Berklee College of Music at the largest silent film festival in the country. Playing the bassoon in the orchestra, he helped to provide the soundtrack to the evening.

For this special performance, and countless others, O’Hara’s family was in attendance – his father, longtime Westbrook City Councilor John O’Hara; his mother, Judy; and his sister, Molly. They’re all planning on many more.

O’Hara started playing music when he was 8, and he hasn’t looked back. He’s a product of the historically successful music program at Westbrook High School and continued on to Berklee College of Music in Boston to study film scoring.

This past year, O’Hara and the rest of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra traveled to take part in multiple film festivals, playing new compositions for silent films such as “Phantom of the Opera” and “The Last Laugh.” Shows at festivals in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard just wrapped up.

Starting his junior year in September, O’Hara said he’s already been surprised by life-changing experiences while at Berklee, which is regarded as one of the most prestigious music schools in the world. But, he still makes time to volunteer with the Westbrook High School marching band. When he’s not playing music, he said, he’s an avid runner and reader. While O’Hara plays the bassoon in the orchestra, his instrument of choice is the piano.

The American Journal checked in with O’Hara recently about playing music for silent film, his favorite composers and what’s next for him at Berklee and beyond.

Q: What was it like to travel to play at silent film festivals? For the audience, do you think the music becomes the centerpiece?

A: Traveling and performing with the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra has been incredible. The amount of raw talent that presents itself each film cycle, from the composers of the music to the abilities of the instrumentalists, is immense. Though only given a matter of days of preparation before each gig, the end result would make you think that we play as a group every day. The festivals themselves have been amazing, as have the audiences in attendance. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival prides itself as being the largest silent film festival in the United States, and it was an honor to be a part of it this past May. As to whether or not the music becomes the centerpiece is an interesting question. Even though the score is being performed live, the hope is that the audience becomes so engrossed in the film and so gripped by the music they’re hearing that they completely forget that we the players are even in the room.

Q: What are some differences in scoring music for a silent film rather than one with audio?

A: Fundamentally, the process of scoring a film complete with audio/dialogue and the process of scoring a silent film is about the same – the music still serves as the emotional embodiment of the film. I think the director of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra Berklee, film scoring professor Sheldon Mirowitz, puts it best: a silent film becomes re-modernized by whoever composes the music. The story of a silent film is told almost entirely through the film’s score, and the composer has the monumental task of accurately conveying the story to the audience without overdoing or undershooting the music. It’s a huge responsibility with no margin for error.

Q: Do you have any goals for after graduation?

A: As of right now, I’m looking toward California – Los Angeles, specifically. The big goal is definitely to write music for a feature film. However, having experience in many different aspects of the field – ranging from composition to MIDI programming/”synthestration” to being a competent copyist, I’d be happy simply working in the world of film music doing any number of things. I’m keeping my options open.

Q: Westbrook has a history of churning out talented musicians. What still stands out to you about your time at WHS?

A: There are so many responses that I could give for this question, but in the end, every potential response boils down to the fact that the faculty members comprising the Westbrook Music Department, as well as the music boosters who work behind the scenes, are some of the most dedicated and supportive individuals I’ve come to know. There was never a time that I didn’t look forward to going to a rehearsal during or after school, and I don’t just say that because music was always my passion, but because the atmosphere of anything involving music at Westbrook High School was always positive.

Q: What are some of your favorite film scores?

A: I almost feel as though it’s impossible to single out individual scores, though I will say I am a sucker for Max Steiner’s score to “Gone With the Wind” and Michael Giacchino’s score to “Up.” John Williams’ orchestrations are always amazing, as are the scores of James Newton Howard and the late James Horner. Say what you will about Hans Zimmer, his use of electronics in the film score has proven to be revolutionary; the elements are everywhere these days.

Q: What’s next for the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra?

A: Coming up on Oct. 30, the score for the group’s most recent project, the silent horror classic “Nosferatu,” will be premiered at Symphony Hall in Boston. However, rather than the BSFO accompanying the film, the score will be performed live-to-picture by the Boston Pops Orchestra under the baton of Keith Lockhart. Tickets are currently on sale and I know that I’ll definitely be there. Following this performance, the BSFO will likely travel back to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival next spring, and there is talk of a potential gig in Los Angeles.

John O’Hara, right, with fellow members of the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra at a recent performance. A graduate of Westbrook High School in 2013, O’Hara has been playing bassoon in an orchestra that has performed at multiple silent film festivals. Courtesy photo


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