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Academy Hits Right Note with Inaugural Oscar Concert

The Academy got it right with its first-ever Oscar concert featuring live performances of this year’s nominated musical scores and songs.

Thursday’s show at UCLA’s Royce Hall was a textbook model of how film music should be presented in concert: single-movement suites averaging eight to 10 minutes, distilling the key themes and musical essence of each score into a unified whole. Images from the films were projected on a screen above the musicians, but the music was not sync’d to any specific scene.

A project of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ much-maligned  music branch — mired in controversy again this year, which lead to one of the song nominees getting disqualified for an alleged rule violation — the concert featured an 80-piece orchestra as well as on-stage chats with the six nominated score composers.

Alexandre Desplat conducted his disarming and delightful “Philomena” music, Thomas Newman the lush strings and evocative dulcimers of “Saving Mr. Banks,” and John Williams the haunting and dramatic music of “The Book Thief.”

Joseph Trapanese (“Oblivion”) conducted Steven Price’s bracing, intense and partially electronic score for “Gravity,” while Owen Pallett conducted a new orchestral arrangement of the minimalist score for “Her” (that he wrote with his Arcade Fire colleague William Butler).

All met with enthusiastic applause from a near-capacity crowd of 1,700 that appeared to consist of Acad members and film music fans. Standing ovations were reserved for two Hollywood veterans: 82-year-old “Star Wars” composer Williams, who snagged his 49th Oscar nom this year for “The Book Thief,” and 85-year-old Disney songwriter Richard M. Sherman, who regaled the crowd with the story of working on “Mary Poppins” that was the basis for “Saving Mr. Banks.”

With all of the original song performers already booked to play Sunday’s Oscar telecast, none of them were on hand to sing the nominated songs.

“Let It Go,” the anthem from “Frozen,” was performed by its writers, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez ; Jill Scott (pictured) sang Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (with a troupe of moppet dancers choreographed by Debbie Allen) from “Despicable Me 2”; Cristin Milioti (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) sang Karen O’s “The Moon Song” from “Her,” and Matt Cermanski (a recent contestant on “The Voice”) sang U2’s “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

More problematic were the choices of host and on-stage interviewer. Rapper-actor Common appeared uncomfortable in the role of host and fumbled frequently with the script. Film critic Elvis Mitchell, enlisted to interview the composers between segments, was hit-and-miss in his questioning.

Music-branch governor and producer Charles Fox began the evening with a previously unheard two-minute version of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Fanfare for Oscar,” commissioned by the Academy in 1997. Fox said later that he hopes the concert will become an annual Oscar-season event.

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