Ordinarily I devote this blog entirely to books, but I’m discovering that the end of the year, roughly from Thanksgiving to early January, isn’t a good time for reading. There are too many distractions: shopping to be done, movies to see, new computer games to play (I’m currently hooked on The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim) and events to attend. Not all of those events are holiday related. Yesterday Amy and I went to a concert of motion picture music by the LA Philharmonic at Disney Hall and it was as much fun as the Disneyland Christmas Fantasy Parade (which Amy and I also saw recently) without a single dancing reindeer in sight.
Amy (whose idea the concert was in the first place) had the inspired notion of having us get there early to see the pre-concert lecture by Jon Burlingame, a writer for Variety, lecturer on movie music at USC, and author of several books, who is such a knowledgeable and interesting speaker on the subject of film scores that I found myself wondering whether non-students are allowed to sit in on his USC lectures. The concert itself was part of Pacific Standard Time, a Los Angeles-area program comprising dozens of exhibitions and events at participating institutions around the area through at least next May that concentrates on major LA-based art movements from the period 1945 through 1980. Accordingly, the LA Phil concert concentrated on film composers and scores from the 1940s through the 1970s. At the beginning of that period, according to Burlingame, movie music was dominated by European composers who had developed the traditional Hollywood film score based on the European romantic music tradition of the late 19th century. This relatively early Hollywood sound was represented in the concert by Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s scores for King’s Row and Deception. The latter, though relatively obscure as a film, produced the more compelling concert showpiece, because it’s a movie about a composer competing with a cellist for the affections of Bette Davis and writing scores with complex cello solos deliberately intended to drive the cellist insane. The LA Phil brought in matinee idol cellist Zuill Bailey (who spoke briefly during the pre-concert lecture) to play one of the brain-damagingly difficult cello pieces. What’s maddening about the music, according to Bailey, is the complexity of the opening notes — Bailey says he almost gave up on the assignment when he first tried to play them — and while I don’t know enough about playing the cello to know what would make a solo difficult enough to drive a soloist insane (Bailey says he hasn’t succumbed yet), I could tell that the opening notes were maddeningly fast, with Bailey moving the fingers of his left hand across the strings on the cello’s neck rapidly enough to make Yo-Yo Ma (and probably Eric Clapton) jealous. Apparently in the original film the solo was deemed so difficult, or at least so complicated, that the filmmakers actually brought in two cellists to play it onscreen, one supplying the right hand and another the left. But at the concert Bailey braved it alone.
The most interesting part of the concert, at least for my tastes, began with the scores from the 1950s, a period when competition with television and the disintegration of the studio system freed film composers to break away from the European romantic tradition and adopt more innovative techniques that reflected 20th century trends in music. Alex North’s music for A Streetcar Named Desire, represented in the concert by an orchestral suite, borrowed New Orleans jazz stylings in a manner that (according to Burlingame) was considered so sensual at the time that it was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, which had the power in those days to bring down the wrath of several major religions on films with content deemed too sexual, violent or blasphemous for family consumption. (I remember when the Legion of Decency had a phone number you could call to get a recorded message about which movies they found acceptable and unacceptable, though I’m sure it no longer exists. But I digress…) Probably the high point for me of these later scores was Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant opening theme for North by Northwest, possibly my favorite piece of movie music ever. According to Burlingame, Herrmann saw the movie as a kind of long-distance dance between the Cary Grant and James Mason characters and so he based the score on the fandango. (You couldn’t prove this by me — I wouldn’t know a fandango from a mambo. But I think it’s a fascinating concept.) Amy and I agreed later that half of what we love about that movie is Herrmann’s propulsive score.
After the Herrmann theme something relatively soothing was needed and it was supplied by a suite based on Elmer Bernstein’s score for To Kill a Mockingbird. According to Burlingame (and conductor Thomas Wilkins), Bernstein deliberately wrote the score with a childlike simplicity, borrowing from the gentle sound of a music box to reflect the naïve sensibilities of the Gregory Peck character’s children, from whose viewpoint the story is told. This suite was followed by Henry Mancini’s familiar and beautifully melodic title theme from Charade, one of the films that brought Hollywood into a period when movie scores could produce radio hits. (Ironically, this was just about the point in time when Broadway scores were ceasing to produce radio hits.)
And then came a couple of pieces by Jerry Goldsmith, who holds the distinction of being both the first major Hollywood composer actually born in the Los Angeles area (in Pasadena) and the first movie/TV composer, with the possible exception of Mancini, that I remember being aware of as a kid. (This was because he wrote the theme for my favorite TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and scored the first couple of episodes. In addition to the rousing U.N.C.L.E. theme, which was given a different orchestration for each of the four seasons of that show, those two episodes produced a lovely snippet of music called “Solo’s Theme” that I’m probably the only person who remembers and certainly the only person who can hum.) Goldsmith was represented here by “The Hunt” from Planet of the Apes, a dissonant and breathlessly exciting piece influenced by avant-garde composers like Stravinsky, and the crushingly beautiful score from Chinatown, presented here as a suite. According to Burlingame, the producer of Chinatown (who he didn’t name, but I have to assume was Robert Evans) once said that Goldsmith’s score saved the movie. It’s hard to believe that even a score this good was needed to save a movie that featured the talents of Jack Nicholson, Roman Polanski and Robert Towne at the top of their respective games, but apparently the film’s first score (by a different composer) was dismissed as unsatisfactory and Goldsmith was given ten days to produce a better one. Burlingame told an anecdote that I wish I could retell verbatim about how, after being shown a screening of the unscored film, Goldsmith was asked what he “heard.” Goldsmith responded with a brief list of instruments that’s both impressive and a little humorous in its stark precision. (All I remember is that it included “four pianos and four harps.”) Years later, Burlingame asked Goldsmith in an interview why he had chosen that particular list of instruments and Goldsmith, who was apparently a very intuitive composer, replied that he had no idea. “They’re what I heard.” Perhaps the most interesting part about watching the Chinatown Suite performed by a live orchestra (which, alas, was restricted to only two harps and two pianos) was watching the pianists reach inside their pianos at a couple of points and directly stroke and pluck the strings, one of the innovative touches that Goldsmith brought to the music.
The final piece of movie music in the official program was another favorite of mine, John Williams’ orchestral suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which culminates in that famous five note musical motif that the aliens in the film use to communicate with humans. It was thrilling to hear, but even more thrilling was the encore, where conductor Wilkins came back out and led the orchestra in a surprise rendition of John Williams’ opening theme from Superman, another of my all-time favorite pieces of movie music. I happily joined in a standing ovation when that one was over.
Disney Hall puts podcasts of its lecture series online. Although the Burlingame talk doesn’t seem to be available as of this writing, it should appear on this page when and if it is. (Burlingame’s picture is down near the bottom and appears to be waiting for a link, though two months after I originally posted this it has yet to appear.) In the meantime, here are orchestral versions of some of the music mentioned above, including some from the original soundtracks:
North by Northwest Theme (Bernard Herrmann)
Love Theme from Chinatown (Jerry Goldsmith)
“The Hunt” from Planet of the Apes (Jerry Goldsmith)
To Kill a Mockingbird Theme (Elmer Bernstein)
Suite from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (John Williams)
Theme from Superman the Movie (John Williams)