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From ‘The Orville’ to ‘Succession,’ TV Maestros Conduct Symphonies of Sound

Composer Joel McNeely stands before 93 musicians on the cavernous Fox scoring stage, his hands raised, about to conduct a musical cue for the season finale of Fox’s “The Orville.”

“Very energetic,” he urges, giving the downbeat. For the next three minutes he leads them through a passage that’s variously mysterious, ominous and dramatic, as images of a spaceship negotiating an asteroid field unspool on the big screen behind them.

Producer-star Seth MacFarlane, seated in the glassed-in recording booth a few yards away, listens intently. After that first take, he says simply, “That was spectacular.”

McNeely’s massive orchestra (a record number of musicians toiling on a weekly network series) is a key element in the production of “The Orville.” A few weeks later, at an “Orville” music event, MacFarlane justified the expense: “When you compare the visual effects budget, or the production design budget, or the costume budget on any show, it’s not breaking the bank to use an orchestra. On a subconscious level, it makes the show important. It makes it matter more.”

Music in TV seems to matter more than ever, especially at the Emmys, which now boasts seven music categories: three for dramatic underscore (for series, limited series or movie, documentary), two for song use (original song, music supervision), and one each for music direction and title theme.

And, with all the choices — from network to cable to streaming — there are just as many sounds in the air.

Nicholas Britell (an Oscar nominee for “If Beale Street Could Talk”) combined classical and hip-hop sounds for the theme of HBO’s “Succession,” about the family struggle for control of a New York-based media empire.

“The music should always feel like part of the fabric of the project,” says Britell. “There was something completely absurd about mixing this sort of late-classical-era kind of music with these huge beats. There’s the stateliness of the minuet and these disproportionately large beats: a strangeness and a counterpoint to that world.”

Depending on the scene, the music ranged from “just piano or a few guitars and banjos to a small chamber orchestra,” Britell says. He worked for seven months on the initial 10 episodes.

The music of “Leaving Neverland,” HBO’s controversial Michael Jackson documentary, eligible in the new non-fiction score category, needed to “sound rich and filmic, fairy tale-like,” composer Chad Hobson says. “The approach was to imagine a walk through a beautiful and magical forest — but as you travel deeper into the forest it becomes darker, more distorted, the limbs of the trees becoming more twisted and sinister.”

Composer Jeff Russo (“Star Trek: Discovery”) was handed a gift with Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy”: the most intriguing and complex of its seven superhero siblings is a world-class violin soloist, and its literally earth-shaking finale is set against an orchestra concert. Russo began writing music even before the pilot was shot, penning a classically styled violin piece for Vanya (Ellen Page) and then a “suite” of music for the Academy that became the basis for all of his themes throughout the season. The seven-minute “Apocalyptic Suite” featured prominently in the last episode.

“I was playing against the storyline,” notes Russo. “I like to play opposite of what you see, and we have this ragtag bunch of misfit and crazy superheroes in this family. What better way to contrast that than with a really beautiful, traditional score?”

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