Movie and TV composers are in greater demand than ever for, surprisingly, new music for the concert hall.
For decades, concert commissions for film composers were few and far between. The increasing popularity of John Williams’ film music, and his visibility as conductor of the Boston Pops in the 1980s and ’90s, led to his writing a number of concert works, but Williams was, for the most part, the exception to the rule.
That is changing, some composers say, because orchestra managers are reaching the belated conclusion that film music communicates immediately to audiences, and the current trend of live-to-picture concerts of movie hits (everything from “Star Wars” to “Lord of the Rings”) is bringing in big bucks. As a result, adventurous programmers are seeking new works by established film composers in hopes that audiences have developed a thirst for similarly melodic, even exciting, music by names they recognize even if there are no images to accompany them.
Several concert works by film composers will debut in the next few weeks:
— “When We Were One,” a cello concerto by James Newton Howard (of “The Hunger Games” fame; pictured above, right), March 23 and 24 by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
— “Eleven Eleven,” a violin concerto by Danny Elfman (“Alice in Wonderland”; above, left), on March 31 in Tucson, April 4 in Northridge, Calif., and May 17 in Denver.
— “The Rose of Sonora,” a violin concerto by George S. Clinton (the “Austin Powers” movies), on April 25 with the Chattanooga, Tenn., Symphony Orchestra.
— A violin concerto by Fil Eisler (“Revenge,” “Empire”), April 27 by the American Youth Symphony in Los Angeles.
— “The Paper Lined Shack,” a song cycle by Jeff Beal (“House of Cards”), on May 4 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
— “Promethean Fire,” for soprano, violin and harp by Bruce Babcock (“Murder, She Wrote”), on July 7 at Mount Wilson Observatory.
— “All American,” an overture by Laura Karpman (“Underground”), Aug. 22 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
Add to these a whole spate of other recent concert pieces by film composers, including:
— A symphony for orchestra and two pianos by Cliff Eidelman (“Star Trek VI”).
— An oratorio, “Prussian Requiem,” by John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon”).
— An “August Wilson Symphony” by Kathryn Bostic (“Dear White People”).
— A trombone concerto by Bruce Broughton (“Silverado”).
— A tuba concerto by Lalo Schifrin (“Mission: Impossible”).
— A tone poem, “Angels Among Us,” by Nan Schwartz (“Cagney & Lacey”).
— “Voyage,” a symphonic piece celebrating NASA’s 60th anniversary, by Michael Giacchino (“Up”).
Says cellist Andrew Shulman, who will perform the Howard concerto this weekend: “When I get up on stage, I want to connect with an audience. I want the audience to be moved by whatever I’m playing.” He finds many 21st century classical composers “leave the audience completely cold,” whereas film composers — who are accustomed to reaching moviegoers immediately and directly with emotional music — “want to communicate to an audience.”
Howard wrote a violin concerto in 2015, recently released on CD. His new work reflects his current feelings about the state of the world, “a feeling of fragmentation and regret,” he says. Peter Golub’s program notes describe it as “a lament… where darkness is increasingly pervasive.”
Symphony music directors talk about wanting to bring younger audiences into concert halls, and acknowledge that their film-music concerts are popular, according to Elfman. “But there is something that can cross between these audiences,” he adds. “That’s really what I set out to do.”
Elfman thinks that “the mistake other film composers have made over the years is writing concert music that doesn’t relate to the people who know their music through film scores.” He wants listeners to “keep spotting sections where they go, ‘That’s the Danny I know.'”
He plans to write a new concert work every year, and has already lined up commissions for concertos for cello and percussion.
Clinton’s piece is something of a crossover work in that, while it’s a violin concerto in five movements, it is specifically story-based. Soloist Holly Mulcahy asked for “an epic Western soundtrack-style” piece, and Clinton responded by writing his own story and then putting music to it.
The audience will read a few lines (projected above the orchestra) as each movement begins, describing the saga of a female outlaw in the Old West. “The audience can imagine what’s happening as they hear the music and watch Holly perform,” he says. “By the end of the piece, they will have experienced the story of the Rose of Sonora in their own sort of mental movie.”
Clinton’s music is like a classic Western score: rhythmic, energetic Americana. “We wanted it to exist on both sides of that fence — pops concerts and classical music concerts,” he says.
Beal, who now moves regularly between the worlds of film and TV scoring and concert music, says “my vision of a composer has always been that film and media were simply a subset of a larger picture of us as composers. We are by nature musical storytellers, so the concert hall can be a natural extension of that world.
“The trend is encouraging,” he adds. “The buzzword of the concert world of late is ‘representation and diversity,’ which is great.” Beal points out that “the composers who write some of the most listened-to and enjoyed music out in the world” have until now been “underrepresented” in the concert field.
His song cycle will be conducted by conductor Leonard Slatkin, whose parents, Felix and Eleanor Slatkin, were top violin and cello players in the Hollywood studios for decades. Its text is based on the diaries of Beal’s great-grandmother, a widow with six children who lived on a farm in rural Idaho at the turn of the 20th century.
He debuted a new symphonic work, “The Great Circle,” with the New West Symphony in January in Thousand Oaks, Calif. It was written in response to the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides of 2017-18.