Saturday, April 24, 2010

WAXMAN, BERNSTEIN AND THE CSO

Conductor Richard Kaufman brought a concert of film music from Hollywood's Golden Age to Boettcher Hall last night. The centerpiece of the show was the music of one of my favorite composers, Franz Waxman, but the first half of the concert was dedicated to music of the films of John Wayne.

The concert opened with a rousing version of Johnny Williams' Copland-inspired music to THE COWBOYS. I remember when Williams took over the Boston Pops, and the idea of playing film music in the concert hall was still new, this is one of the first pieces he conducted there. The action theme is a great one, and it has many of Williams' recognizable signatures, including the melody being doubled on glockenspiel.

I remember Elmer Bernstein once telling me proudly that he had scored eight of John Wayne's last films. This concert featured music from THE COMMANCHEROS and TRUE GRIT. It also featured Dmitri Tiomkin's music from THE ALAMO. Unfortunately placing so many westerns in a row resulted in a certain sameness of music in the first half, with at least three of the scores sounding like they all wished they were Bernstein's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.

But the highlight of the evening was the second half. Franz Waxman is somewhat of a forgotten composer, I think, for the reason that his music is so good: he could write in almost any style. The wide variety of cues from various scores performed at this concert pointed out what a talented man he really was. Starting with a Korngold-esque score from PRINCE VALIANT, they moved on to his brilliant score from SUNSET BOULEVARD.

I have a great recording of Waxman's scores, which includes most of the music from the concert, and which I have listened to countless times. This was the first time I had ever heard any of this music played live, and I always forget how much better orchestral music sounds when it is live. Several of these scores were literally breathtaking. VALIANT is a great brass score, but very traditional. SUNSET is such a bizarre and unique film, it's hard to explain why his music for the film is so perfect. It recognizes the plot - Salome is used for flashbacks to Norma Desmond's career - but harmonically it must be one of the strangest films scores ever written. Billy Wilder understood the importance of score and he let the music take the front row seat for many of the climactic scenes in the film.

Following this with Waxman's unique music from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN was a brilliant contrast. James Whale deliberately set out to make a film as different as possible from the original FRANKENSTEIN, and tuned the film into a dark comic romance. Waxman's score recognizes all aspects of this, with is simple but dissonant motif for the monster, and his harmonically rich theme for the bride.

SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS used a couple of interesting ideas for the landing in Ireland, including an Irish dance playing against the lush romantic theme for the plane, as well as a clock-like percussion motif to create tension for the landing. The love theme from SAYONARA was one that I did not know. It was a beautiful theme.

The evening ended on a high note with an overlooked score from TARAS BULBA. As the conductor pointed out, music can often make a terrible film almost watchable, and this is one of those great cues ("Ride of the Cossacks") that surpasses anything the movie could ever do. Reminiscent of Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," it's almost impossible to avoid tapping your foot to this music. The audience for the concert was quite good and was on its feet after this performance.

The only thing lacking was visual images. I wish they would put together video montages for some of these pieces, but I'm sure the rights clearances would be a nightmare.
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