One Score 2014

John Williams conducting at Ravinia


By Michael McManus

For social and economic reasons, the traditional concert hall can seem an intimidating place, seemingly in the thrall of antiquated codes of behavior and highly unwelcoming to a neophyte. Yet film music in the same concert hall can be a safe banker in terms of "bums on seats." But is the music really that much more "accessible" than Haydn, Beethoven or even Mahler, or is it simply more familiar? Can the finale of Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony and the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth have become so well known thanks to the demotic medium of film, without people becoming intrigued and seeking to find out more about those pieces and the men who composed them?

There is a noble tradition of "serious" composers producing works for the big screen. Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich did their bit for the genre, Aaron Copland scored The Heiress and The Red Pony, Benjamin Britten scored the GPO film Night Mail and Leonard Bernstein was nominated for an Oscar when he wrote his brooding, violent score for On the Waterfront. Ben Foster, who composes and orchestrates music for the new series of Doctor Who and its spin-off series, conducted hugely successful Doctor Who Proms in 2008 and 2010, alternating TV music with classical fare. Foster knows from experience that music from the small screen can provide a "gateway" into the classical repertoire for those who might otherwise never venture into the concert hall. The same can be true of film music.

Some of the most exciting and enjoyable London Symphony Orchestra concerts I have attended were of film music. The LSO's Maurice Murphy played perhaps the most famous trumpet entry of all time when he recorded the soundtrack to Star Wars in 1977 and, when the second Star Wars trilogy was made, composer John Williams returned to the LSO to record the soundtracks. He also, at the Barbican in 1996 and 1998, brought a largely new crowd into the concert hall to hear live symphonic music-making by a world-class orchestra. It is possible to hear in Williams's film music echoes of earlier sound-worlds-Mahler, Sibelius, Walton and, above all else, Wagner. His Star Wars music, in particular, is characterized by dazzling use of musical leitmotifs, accompanying situations and characters. The film music of John Williams is, as Ben Foster puts it, typical in that "alot of it is thematic...there is a populist element to repeating themes from a film." Yet Williams's other concert music, for instance The Five Sacred Trees and his Cello Concerto, is tougher fare altogether. The latter is definitely more Lutoslawski than light music. Thanks in no small part to his reputation as a film composer, it nonetheless finds a ready audience.

Another composer-conductor who discovered alchemy with the LSO was Jerry Goldsmith. His visit to the Barbican in 2003 was a fine coup, because he gave so few concerts. Indeed, his scores were not published and the parts had to be specially prepared. When a return visit had to be cancelled because of the cancer that subsequently killed him, Dirk Brossé deputized, requiring another special dispensation because Goldsmith did not, as a rule, allow others to conduct his works. These are not pieces written for the concert hall, yet they were deservedly cheered to the echo. Ben Foster is a great admirer of Goldsmith's oeuvre, because "his music was certainly more forward-thinking . . . he was conscious of those around him when he was doing the music for those Planet of the Apes movies in the 1960s . . . that music is certainly avant-garde, and it is certainly what he was known for at that time . . . it's music no one else was brave enough to do in film."

Two other composer-conductors who used live music-making to great effect made highly innovative use of jazz and its tech- niques in their film scores. A decade ago Elmer Bernstein joined the BBC Concert Orchestra for an unforgettable Prom, and in the 1990s the wonderful Laurie Johnson and his big band could regularly pack the Royal Albert Hall, too. Johnson may be best known for his work for the small screen (notably The Avengers and The Professionals), but he wrote some astringent film music, too, for a film ver- sion of Hedda Gabler and Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove. Ben Foster, for whom Johnson is a great inspiration, believes "his association with film and TV certainly made his audience," giving him the opportunity to bring his other music before an enthusiastic listening public. It is a gratifying thought that some of those listeners and, in a later decade, some of the children who thrilled to Ben Foster's Doctor Who extravaganzas, might have been tempted to visit our august concert halls again, to learn that great music is simply great music-whether or not it has played its part in the magic of the silver screen.