The range and diversity of music in current television was vividly showcased in a live concert Thursday night at the Television Academy’s Saban Media Center in North Hollywood. Nearly 600 attended “Words + Music: A Concert Celebrating Music Written for Television.”
From “Empire” to “Luke Cage,” “Feud” to “Fargo,” the performance of songs, themes and score excerpts gave composers and songwriters a rare opportunity to emerge from their studios. As “Stitchers” composer Kurt Farquhar quipped at the start of the show, “we’re always in a dark, windowless room for 16 hours a day.”
Actors and showrunners, introducing many of the tunes, were complimentary about the music-making behind the scenes. Actress Chrissy Metz talked about Siddhartha Khosla’s evocative scores for “This Is Us,” Gabourey Sidibe cited the contributions of hip-hop producers Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins to “Empire,” and “Homeland” executive producer Alex Gansa regaled the crowd with tales of composer Sean Callery as if he was a more interesting character than the ones he scores.
Veteran composer-conductor Mark Watters conducted a 27-piece orchestra for most of the themes. Vocal group Take Six entertained the crowd with a cappella renditions of classic TV themes (“The Flintstones,” “Cheers,” “Peter Gunn,” etc.) during stage resets throughout the two hour, 20 minute concert.
Callery’s jazz rendition of his “Homeland” theme was an early high point, with the composer on piano and Chris Tedesco on flugelhorn — just after the composer conducted the orchestra in a powerful piece from “Designated Survivor.” Similarly, composer Jeff Russo demonstrated his compositional versatility, conducting musically diverse themes from “Legion,” “Fargo” and “The Night Of.”
Diversity was also the theme in terms of the visibility of women and people of color. Taura Stinson’s soulful performance of the Laura Karpman-Raphael Saadiq songs from “Underground,” and Meshell Ndegeocello leading her band in the theme from “Queen Sugar” and music from “The Walking Dead,” were striking examples of fresh approaches to television drama.
“Empire” star Jussie Smollett sang “Good Enough,” the hit song from the series pilot, but the tune that brought down the house was “We Can Always Come Back to This,” the Stax-style soul number from “This Is Us” performed by singer-guitarist Chris Pierce and composer Khosla. It earned the evening’s only standing ovation.
Many of the composers joined in the on-stage music making: Mac Quayle played keyboards in his own music from “Feud” and “Mr. Robot,” and Brazilian composer Pedro Bromfman played charango in his colorful music from “Narcos.”
But Nathan Barr may have won the “most original musical concept” award by playing a stripped-down, torn-apart, on-its-side upright piano in excerpts from “The Americans.” Using various mallets, Barr and three other musicians struck and plucked and banged away at the instrument, creating evocative sounds familiar to fans of the series.
Another highlight was David Buckley’s unexpected neo-baroque approach to the music of “The Good Fight,” featuring strings, recorder and mandolin in the evening’s most traditionally classical score. And veteran composer John Debney wound up the show with a surprising guitar performance of his bluesy “Bonnie and Clyde” theme followed by his fun, Latin-flavored “Santa Clarita Diet.”
TV Academy music governors Michael A. Levine and Rickey Minor, who conceived the evening, also made on-stage appearances: Minor (longtime music director of “American Idol,” who, Variety reported, will lead the band once more when the show is revived on ABC) played bass on many of the tunes, while Levine played harmonica in the music of “Narcos.”