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Series 2 – Adventures on Film

Today’s concert pays tribute to the increasingly popular genre of film music with a program highlighting scores from some of the great cinematographic hits of the last six decades. These years have seen many advances in recording, orchestration, sound sources and sound production, leading to new ideas in composition for film. At the same time there has been a revival of the older symphonic film score from the glory days of European and American cinema of the mid twentieth century. Both trends are well represented here.

The earliest piece on the program, Elmer Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from The Magnificent Seven of 1960, provides a reflection of the type of film score for full orchestra that marked the “Golden Years” of Hollywood from roughly the 1930s to 1950s. During this period composers with a solid European classical training dominated the industry. Many, in fact, were recent immigrants to the United States, such as Erich Korngold and Max Steiner. They brought with them the sound and traditions of late Romantic orchestral music which were effectively applied to the narrative of the film.

Bernstein, however, was a native American, born in New York to immigrant European Jewish parents. He began his musical career as a concert pianist, then turned to film scoring in the early 1950s, establishing his reputation with his music for The Man with the Golden Arm. His score for the classic western, The Magnificent Seven is clearly indebted to the American classical composer Aaron Copland, whom Bernstein admired and who encouraged Bernstein when he was quite young.

The film, a transposition of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai into the Wild West, tells the story of a rag-tag band of American gunslingers that come to the aid of a small Mexican village terrorized by a gang of banditos under the leadership of the ruthless Calveros (played delightfully by Eli Wallach). The main theme brilliantly captures the open spaces and optimistic tenor of the movie. Other excerpts are marked by a distinctly Mexican flavour, especially the festival music.

By the early 1970s there were a number of important developments in film composition that threatened to supplant the older type of score. Bernstein, for one, deplored the use of pop music and “sound effects” in contemporary film music. The overtly Romantic symphonic score, however, was given a new lease on life by John Williams, beginning with his music for Jaws in 1975 and continuing with his long and fertile partnership with the director Steven Spielberg.

Today, Williams is undoubtedly one of the most popular and influential film music composers. Like Bernstein, he had a thorough classical training, first at UCLA then Juilliard. He also worked as a Jazz pianist and this experience formed a crucial aspect of his art. The film music for Spielberg’s runaway hit Jurassic Park (1993) is a good example of the brilliant type of music – now noble, now exciting or eerily menacing – that Williams can provide for such adventure films.

However, Schindler’s List (1993) shows an entirely different and very affecting side of the composer. Based on a true story, the movie depicts the moral awakening of corrupt businessman Oskar Schindler, as he struggles to save the lives of his Jewish workers during the darkest days of the Holocaust in Krakow, Poland. Here the intimate, Jewish folk-like atmosphere of the opening theme projects a sense of humanity and quiet suffering that cries out against the cold-blooded atrocities depicted on screen. The soundtrack featured two great musicians, violinist Itzhak Perlman and Klezmer clarinettist Giora Feldman.

The tradition of the symphonic score is also found in the music James Horner supplied for another blockbuster, Titanic (1997). This film grafts a doomed love story between poor artist Jack and troubled socialite Rose, onto the true tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic. Upon its release Titanic was a giant success, becoming the highest grossing film worldwide until Avatar surpassed it in 2009. Some of this success is due to the score’s ability to tug unashamedly on the heart strings, as in “My Heart will Go On” sung by Celine Dion for the soundtrack, and some of the haunting “Irish” music, suggesting the tragic fate of the lower-class Irish passengers aboard.

As the twentieth century neared its close, film music increasingly incorporated electronic sound and special effects. This is particularly true of the scores of Hans Zimmer, who is now considered a major force in this field. After emigrating from Germany to England as a child, Zimmer’s early career consisted of playing keyboard and synthesizer in various pop/rock bands, and consequently his music relies heavily on synthesized sound and powerful speaker systems. These qualities can be seen in a comparison of the two Superman film scores – Williams’ Superman (1978), with its bright opening brass fanfare, and Zimmer’s Man of Steel (2013), with its visceral pounding sonorities.

Another movie genre represented in this concert’s music is that of the animated film. The field of animation has been dominated by Walt Disney Studios since the 1930s, with the scores supplying popular tunes, such as “Some Day my Prince will Come” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), which has become a jazz standard. This tradition has continued with the recent hit Frozen (2013) and its attractive, tuneful score by Anderson-Lopez and Lopez. A new rival for Disney is DreamWorks Pictures, which produced The Prince of Egypt in 1998, retelling the story of Moses as a young man up to the Exodus, with songs by Stephen Schwartz, who has also worked for Walt Disney Studios and composed the tunes for the musical Godspell (1973).

The genre of science fiction is equally well represented on this program with music from two recent films. Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is the second in a series of new Star Trek movies, which are essentially prequels to the original series, presenting adventures from the early career of Captain Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest. The music for the TV series by Alexander Courage has become iconic of the science fiction film in general. The composer for Into Darkness, Michael Giacchino, a graduate of New York’s famous School of Visual Arts and composer for television, film and video games, includes references to Courage’s classic score alongside his own edgy, percussive music.

The Hunger Games (2012), the first film in a series of four based on the Hunger Games trilogy by novelist by Suzanne Collins, was an immediate run-away success on its release in 2012. The film is set in a fractured, apocalyptic future world in which young sacrificial victims from various districts of the fictional country of Panem are forced to fight to the death in televised combat. Its story revolves around the fate of two of the combatants, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. James Newton Howard, a veteran film composer with an Emmy and a Golden Globe to his credit, provided an effective score for the film, which has, at times, a certain folksy flavour to it.

Dr Brian Black