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Movie Music: Perlman and the New York Philharmonic

With all this discussion here and here over the quality of "crossover" artists, such as the great composer Miklos Rozsa, who wrote both for the concert stage and the cinema, nothing could have been more timely than going to a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center last night. Yes, occasionally, I actually get out!

The concert was billed as "Music from the Movies: An Evening of American Cinematic Musical Magic," and it featured the great New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, whose parents and uncle, he explained, had early experiences in the field of Hollywood music-making. The great violinist Itzhak Perlman joined the orchestra as the featured soloist on several compositions. (A copy of the program is offered here in PDF format.)

Comments welcome.

The concert opened, appropriately, with the famous Alfred Newman-penned fanfare for 20th Century Fox. It sent a ripple through the packed house, serving notice that we were here for a night of both art and entertainment. Slatkin then led the orchestra into a bold, majestic take on the magnificent overture to El Cid, composed by Miklos Rozsa. Having never heard anything from El Cid performed by a live orchestra (one of my favorite film scores), I was immediately hooked.

Slatkin paused after the Rozsa piece to welcome the audience; he provided lots of interesting little tidbits about the compositions to be performed. He told us that this was not music from "film." It was not music from the "cinema." This was "Movie Music," he announced boldly. And, to a certain extent, he was actually quite correct. The concert did not focus on the more expansive, industrious, or full-bodied twists, turns, and intricacies of film scoring. But it did present some of the most melodic, most memorable movie themes. (Of course, I am only sorry that the concert did not last for several hours: I would have loved to have heard selections from Rozsa's Ben-Hur or Jarre's Lawrence of Arabia, or anything by Bernard Herrmann, for example.)

The Philharmonic then turned to Alex North's "Love Theme from Spartacus," which, even though it conjures up images of Kirk Douglas and Jean Simmons, stands alone as one of the most delicate, romantic compositions I've ever heard.

A John Williams-arranged orchestral version of Charles Chaplin's "Smile" (from Modern Times) followed, as Itzhak Perlman joined the Philharmonic on stage. Perlman worked through Alfred Newman's "Cathy's Theme" from Wuthering Heights, Max Steiner's Now Voyager theme, and Erich Korngold's love theme from The Adventures of Robin Hood, all in a heartfelt tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood. I could see older couples familiar with these films from the '30s and '40s grasping one another's hands, transported into the romantic moments these compositions encapsulated on the screen.

The first act concluded with a rousing tribute to one of the grand Maestros of the Philharmonic: Leonard Bernstein (pronounced "stine," as in "Einstein," Bernstein reportedly once said, or so Slatkin reminded us—in contrast to the pronunciation of the "steen" in Elmer Bernstein's name). Slatkin told us that Bernstein was none too pleased with his experiences in Hollywood and his soundtrack for On the Waterfront was his only bona fide film score (though his theatrical scores were used in film adaptations, such as On the Town and West Side Story). Bernstein's "Symphonic Suite" from On the Waterfront offered us a bit more of the complexities to be found in film scoring. It also provided a few hints of that classic "New York" sound that might be found in a later composition of his, "Something's Coming," from West Side Story.

The second act opened with a tribute to great American film composers who died over the past 16 months. Elmer Bernstein's rousing theme from The Magnificent Seven and Michael Kamen's charming "Scherzo from An American Symphony" from Mr. Holland's Opus were followed by an utterly mesmerizing orchestral treatment of David Raksin's theme from Laura. This section closed with a terrific performance of the main title from Patton, composed by the late, great Jerry Goldsmith.

Itzhak Perlman joined the orchestra once again for another set of selections. The ever-lovely main theme from Out of Africa, by John Barry, ended on a surprise note, as Slatkin introduced the composer, who sat a few rows to my left. Barry stood to applause, and gave his "thumbs up" to the musicians for this tribute. John Williams' sensitive theme from Far and Away followed. Perlman's delivery of the theme from Schindler's List was shattering. Having recorded this composition for the film's soundtrack and having performed it live on the 2000 Academy Awards' television broadcast, Perlman's performance here was nothing less than brilliant. He followed it with the "Tango (Por una Cabeza)" from Scent of a Woman, and gave us an encore too: the Morricone-penned theme from Cinema Paradiso. Perlman's contributions were met with a much-deserved standing ovation.

Slatkin concluded the night with Howard Shore's soaring "Symphonic Suite" from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which featured the vocals of young boy soprano James Danner. Violating a rule of entertainment—not to follow the performance of a child—as Slatkin declared, he came back for an encore to conduct the orchestra in a tribute to the "March King," as he put it. "No, not that one," he joked, but the "March King" for the last 35 years: John Williams. The audience erupted as the orchestra blared the "Imperial March" (also known as "Darth Vader's Theme") from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

After all my recent discussions over film scores as "derivative" and "culture lite," I can only say: Nuts to the naysayers. This was one terrifically entertaining and moving night of music.

Also noted at The Rozsa Forum.