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Movie Maestros Invade the Concert Hall

But it's no longer about playing their film scores but music for music's sake

Is the stigma finally disappearing?

Next month, the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa, Calif., will present three nights of classical music showcasing concert works by composers better known for their movie scores: John Williams, James Horner, Elliot Goldenthal and Howard Shore.

All told, they have 11 Academy Awards, but you won’t hear any “E.T.,” “Titanic,” “Frida” or “The Lord of the Rings” May 8-10. Instead, Carl St. Clair will conduct the premiere of a Goldenthal symphony, the West Coast premiere of Shore’s cello concerto, the concert debut of a Horner piece and a rarely heard Williams opener.

“These are people that I know and care about,” says St. Clair. These composers, he adds, are possessed of “extraordinary musical language” that extends well beyond their movie work. “It’s a rich trove of musical experiences.”

The nation’s symphony orchestras rarely play the concert work of film and TV composers. They’re happy to make bundles of money playing their film music at summertime “pops” concerts, but their “art music” — written for its own sake — has always been regarded with suspicion.

Richard Guerin, the concert’s curator, thinks the bias continues but that “it doesn’t matter. Audiences in general don’t consider themselves pawns in some ideological war about what art is. The only thing they care about is music they love being performed by artists and performers that they’re interested in.”

Adds St. Clair: “It all has to do with marketing and branding and music being pigeonholed. Programming in general is very different than it used to be.”

Goldenthal, the New York-based composer behind “Frida” and “Batman Forever,” is no stranger to the concert hall. His opera “Grendel” was premiered in 2006 by the L.A. Opera, his ballet “Othello” in 1998 by the American Ballet Theater.

He’s spent the past year preparing and recording several concert works for CD, including a string quartet and a symphonic version of “Othello,” and has just finished the symphony, a 22-minute work in the unusual key of G-sharp minor.

Goldenthal thinks the prejudice against film composers is still there, but “eventually it will wear off. In the 19th century, there was the same sort of bias when it came to composers who wrote for the ballet. Even the great ones.” Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the 20th century’s great symphonists, wrote nearly three dozen film scores, he points out.

Horner, absent from the screen for nearly two years, is now busy with concert commissions. Due in November is Horner’s double concerto for violin and cello, to be debuted by the Liverpool Philharmonic with up-and-coming Norwegian sibling soloists Mari and Hakon Samuelsen. March 2015 will see the debut of a piece for four French horns and orchestra played by the London Philharmonic.

The Pacific Symphony will perform Horner’s 13-minute “Flight,” a 2010 piece written for the Horsemen, a trio of pilots who perform aerobatic stunts in World War II-era P-51 fighter planes. Horner, a pilot for many years, has flown with them.

“You can close your eyes, listen to the music, and imagine what flying is like,” he says. “In this day and age, to be asked to write serious music is like a throwback, something from a different time.”

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