Until fairly recently, it was difficult to find a symphony orchestra willing to play movie music in concert. Conductors generally dismissed the form as commercial and unworthy (that is, unless the composers were known classical figures such as Aaron Copland, William Walton or Sergei Prokofiev).
Now, however, symphony orchestras are gradually accepting the idea that some film music is strong enough to stand on its own — and, more to the point, it lures audiences eager to hear material that is familiar and evocative of the moviegoing experience. In other words, say longtime classical observers, it puts patrons in the seats, and that means money at a time when orchestras everywhere are hurting.
October alone is jammed with major film music events across the nation. Today in Anaheim, Calif., a 58-city tour of the arena show “Star Wars: In Concert” kicks off at the Honda Center. On Friday and Saturday (Oct. 9-10), New York’s Radio City Music Hall will play host to nearly 300 musicians and singers performing Howard Shore’s “Fellowship of the Ring” score live while the three-hour film unspools.
In the Emerald City, the Seattle Symphony will play Bernard Herrmann’s “Psycho” score live to the Hitchcock picture Oct. 29-31 in Benaroya Hall.
And in greater L.A., John Williams will conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an all-film music concert Oct. 16-18, and John Mauceri will perform an all-Disney music program Oct. 20, both at Walt Disney Concert Hall; the Golden State Pops Orchestra will devote most of its Oct. 24 program to music from both incarnations of “Battlestar Galactica” at the Warner Grand theater in San Pedro, Calif.; and Ennio Morricone will make his West Coast debut at the Hollywood Bowl Oct. 25.
“Good music is good music, period,” says composer David Newman (“Hoffa”), who often conducts concerts of classic movie music, “and film music is part of our shared heritage.”
On a practical level, say many observers, movie-music programs attract new audiences and therefore much-needed revenue. “People come to these concerts who have never been to the concert hall,” says Richard Kaufman, who will conduct the Dallas Symphony in a program of Texas-themed film music (“Giant,” “The Alamo”) this weekend at Meyerson Symphony Center. “They are drawn by the (movie) titles and the program. So in a sense, it’s helping to create new concertgoers who will come back to hear the great classical works — just because of the experience of hearing a symphony orchestra play film music.”
“Live at Lincoln Center” producer John Goberman has launched a series, “A Symphonic Night at the Movies,” that showcases the music while the films are screened. He has staged “The Wizard of Oz” with live music; the “Psycho” concert is his idea, while a recent performance at the Bowl featuring clips from Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals conducted by Newman was done under his guidance.
“The music is really symphonic, and what better way to hear it than with a full orchestra in the concert hall?” Goberman says. “But if you’re going to play the original music, the best way to hear it is to (also) see the film that dictated the structure of the music.”
In many cases, however, the orchestras are playing suites or specially arranged concert versions of the classic scores without film accompaniment. John Waxman, who operates Themes & Variations — the world’s largest library of film scores prepared for concert performance — says he’s seeing a greater variety of film music being played these days, from the old standby John Williams material to such current fare as Michael Giacchino’s new “Star Trek.”
The Chicago and Cleveland Symphony Orchestras (two of the so-called Big Five, which also include New York, L.A. and Boston) have added film music concerts to their subscription lineups in recent years, suggesting that film music may finally be moving away from the pop-concert ghetto. “And if the younger conductors continue to do this repertoire,” Waxman says, “it will be as much a part of their audiences’ vocabulary as Brahms or Respighi.”