A screening of “Apollo 13,” Ron Howard’s dramatization of the “successful failure” mission to the moon in 1970, doubled as a touching tribute to the film’s late composer, James Horner. The American Youth Symphony performed Horner’s entire score, live to picture, at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Saturday.
The composer died in a plane crash in 2015 at the age of 61 and never had a public memorial. This concert, which was followed by a dinner, served as a belated and fitting one, as well as a family reunion. His wife, daughter, 96-year-old mother and brothers were all there — as were members of his work family: longtime music editor Jim Henrikson, synth programmer Ian Underwood and mixer Simon Rhodes.
Sara Horner, accepting an award on her husband’s behalf, acknowledged the outsized role that the team played in his career.
“I can say without any hesitation that each and every person who worked for James tried to figure out ‘what the heck is going on,’” she said. “They tried to understand him; they tried to rationalize, somehow, his music-making process. Nobody could really get a handle on what was going on.”
Even Horner’s business manager and attorney were at the event, and his wife laughingly recalled their mutual befuddlement with the composer.
“He was just like getting a tornado into a shoebox,” she said. “No matter how much work you put into getting this artist organized, he’d just escape out the sides.”
“I used to call my dad an alien,” added Emily Horner. “People that are in film, music, painting, or anything… there’s something in your brain that’s a little miswired in such a beautiful way.”
The performance itself, conducted by AYS music director Carlos Izcaray, was excellent. The pre-professional musicians — most of them college students — faithfully and vibrantly recreated the 1995 recording’s patriotic, hymnlike theme, its moments of aleatoric tension, snare drum-led action and passages of almost religious beauty for the awe of space. The latter was supported by a women’s choir, with ethereal solos by Karen Hogle Brown.
Trumpetist Nico Bejarano had the hardest job of the evening — Horner’s score prominently features the instrument with lyrical, Aaron Copland-like solos — and his playing was uniformly tender and strong. The young orchestra never fell out of sync with the film, and they goosed the feel-good launch and victorious climax sequences with goosebump-raising grandeur.
It was part of the AYS’ annual Hollywood Project. The orchestra has deep ties to the film music world, with “Hoffa” composer David Newman (an alumnus) and “A Hidden Life” composer James Newton Howard both on its board, and both in attendance on Saturday.
The dinner was part fundraiser. The AYS doesn’t charge its members tuition, and in fact provides them with stipends, so donor support is vital.
Sara Horner, who met her husband while they were both students at UCLA, recently created an endowed scholarship for young composers in his name. (She also donated all of his papers and scores to the school’s library.)
When Horner was a composing student himself, scratching out a living as a teacher’s assistant, prize money was all-important.
“I remember the year he won the Henry Mancini Award,” Sara Horner said. “That award allowed him to take the time off of his work to try and get film work.”
“Supporting young people to make a bridge from the academic world into the work world… that is a tough place to move from to the other,” she said. “So I’m very pleased that there’s a scholarship in James’ name. And I’m just really touched that these young students that performed here tonight… they sounded amazing. And I just completely forgot they were young!”
Izcaray, who has led the AYS since 2016, spoke about the orchestra’s special emphasis on film music. That includes the Korngold Commission Project, which funds a new violin concerto each year from a Hollywood composer. (The next one, written by “Green Book” composer Kris Bowers, will be premiered by Charles Yang in February.) Many of the young players will likely seek work on the scoring stages in town.
Experiencing a movie like “Apollo 13” with a live orchestra, Izcaray said, is like seeing it in “emotional 3D.”
“You’re connecting with the soul of the artwork. You’re connecting with that sound that is behind the scenes, that emotional content.”
James Horner was in the “very high echelon” of composers for film, he said — composers who not only follow the drama but “are able to also give us melodies, something that our hearts and our minds can connect to.”
Horner was “magic,” said daughter Emily — an artist who saw music in colors. “If it was a sad moment, the music would need to be blue.”
“Film composing is hard,” she said, addressing the budding musicians in the room. “It’s a brutal world. But the beauty and the magic and the intensity that you have in order to create it and participate in it — don’t lose it. It’s a beautiful gift that most of the world will not ever be able to experience. So thank you so much for being here to support my dad. He was an experience in himself, and I’m very grateful that you guys can experience him through his music.”