Nominated Composers Take Center Stage at Oscar Concert

Oscar Concert Performances
Michael Buckner/Variety

With this year’s round of Oscar campaigning finally over and the ballots all in, members of the film scoring community got to take a long, congratulatory breather with a celebratory concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday night. Presented by the LA Phil and the Academy, the Oscar Concert offered a stirring evening of music from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, featuring suites from each of this year’s five Oscar nominated original scores, most conducted by the composers themselves.

Lalo Schifrin, A.R. Rahman, Ava DuVernay, Daniela Vega, Common and last year’s Oscar winner Justin Hurwitz were some of the luminaries on hand for the evening, which kicked off with an introduction from Michael Giacchino (who won the best score Oscar for “Up”). Joined by conductor Thomas Wilkins, Giacchino offered a cute demonstration of the film scoring process as Wilkins conducted three different pieces set to a clip from “Up” — onstage, Giacchino acted the part of a meddlesome, indecisive director, giving Wilkins vague new instructions for the music (“less pushy,” “more magical”), to chuckles of recognition from the film scorers in the audience.

The early program consisted of segments from famous past film scores, as Wilkins ran through pieces by the likes of Nino Rota, Mica Levi, Quincy Jones, John Carpenter and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, set to clip reels from past Oscar honorees. The highlight came at the end, when Terence Blanchard emerged from the wings to play the mournful trumpet solo from his “Malcolm X” score.

The second half of the program was dedicated to the year’s score nominees themselves, with Carter Burwell, Alexandre Desplat, John Williams and Hans Zimmer all joining the orchestra for their respective pieces. (Of the nominees, only Jonny Greenwood was MIA.)

“Good evening, I’m Michael Moore,” said “Shape of Water” director Guillermo del Toro as he strode onstage, going on to introduce the typically animated Desplat by explaining the importance of his music in a film where the two lead characters cannot speak. “When the time came to give them a voice, I called on his craft and artistry.”

Appearing via video, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” helmer Martin McDonagh praised Burwell’s counterintuitive musical vision for his film: “I hadn’t dreamed it would be a spaghetti Western score, but it is.” Paul Thomas Anderson lauded his absent “Phantom Thread” maestro Greenwood by recalling: “I said the one thing you should never say to a composer: ‘Would you write some music like Nelson Riddle?’ Knowing how atonal and depressing [Greenwood’s] music can be, I thought it might make an interesting baby.”

To no one’s surprise, the biggest single ovation of the night was reserved for Williams, after the five-time Oscar winner blazed through a brief, muscular portion of his “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” score. Director Rian Johnson introduced him by noting that, while the composer is “a legend,” “John doesn’t work like a legend; he works like a little kid sprinting to the playground because that’s where the toys are.”

To close the evening, Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch brought the thunder with a stentorian selection from “Dunkirk.” With Wilkins conducting and Zimmer and Wallfisch joining the orchestra on synths, the film’s unnervingly hypnotic sounds climbed higher and higher until Wallfisch was practically head-banging at the back of the stage.