Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Film Composer in the Concert Hall

It has not been uncommon for film composers to write music for the concert stage.  The line between film and concert stage have always been blurry.  As said before, composers have come from both sides of the aisle and several have straddled both sides equally.  It is also not uncommon for large symphony orchestras to play excerpts of film music, or in some occasions mentioned later, the whole film score.

Here are some predominantly film-oriented composers that have written concert music.

One of the composers who has crossed over (and back) extremely well is John Williams.  His concert music seems to be recorded and performed more than any other.  No surprise that he peppers his concerts with these works.  John Williams has written a concerto for just about every instrument.  His commissions have come from players to symphony orchestras.  They include concerti for flute, violin, tuba, clarinet, bassoon (The Five Sacred Trees), cello, trumpet, TreeSong for violin, Heartwood for cello, horn, viola, harp (On Willows and Birches) and most recently oboe. 

Some of his other concert works include:
Air and Simple Gifts (2009) – Composed for the inauguration of Barack Obama
Soundings (2003) – Composed for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall
American Journey (1999) – Composed for a millennium celebration in Washington DC
Variations on Happy Birthday (1995) – For the birthdays of Seji Ozawa, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. 
Sound the Bells! (1993) – Composed for the Japanese royal wedding
For New York -Variations on a theme by Leonard Bernstein (1988)
Liberty Fanfare (1986) – Composed for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty
Sinfonietta for Wind Ensemble (1968)
Symphony No. 1 (1966)
Essay for Strings (1965)

Like Elmer Bernstein, Williams composed a musical, Thomas and the King (1975), which premiered in London.  While not exactly for the concert hall, it also wouldn’t be acceptable to not mention his Olympic compositions, from the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  All of this music can be heard on most Olympic broadcasts.     

Jerry Goldsmith wrote a few concert pieces over his industrious film career.  They have been recorded on the album Christus Apollo.  His works are Christus Apollo (1974) with narrator, Music for Orchestra (1974) and Fireworks, a Celebration of Los Angeles (1999). 

Bernard Herrmann wrote many concert works, unfortunately not often performed.  Many of his film scores were adapted into suites and they are performed regularly.  His underperformed opera Wuthering Heights (1951) was recently performed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Miklós Rózsa’s concert works include many pieces for solo piano, violin and cello including Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song (1929) and Tema Con Variazioni (1966).  Most of his works have been released.

Franz Waxman is another composer who wrote for soloist and orchestra.  He wrote a Tristan and Isolde Fantasy and his most popular concert work, the Carmen Fantasie for violin and orchestra.

Maurice Jarre also wrote many concert works before his rise to popularity with Lawrence of Arabia, including works like Passacaglia to the Memory of Arthur Honegger and Three Dances for Ondes Martenot and Drums.  The latter features the electronic instrument featured in many future film scores.

Ennio Morricone has written many concert works throughout his career.  Many feature string orchestra, voice, electronic sounds, harpsichord and other instrument soloists.

Lalo Schifrin continues to get commissions to this day, and has written pieces like Fantasy for Screenplay and Orchestra, Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and Piano and Three Pieces for Percussion and Strings. 

Leonard Rosenman started as a concert composer, studying with Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions until convinced to compose for films.  He continued to write avant-garde music throughout his film career including a violin concerto and chamber music.

Thomas Newman composed a piece titled It Got Dark in 2009 for the Kronos Quartet and orchestra, which was premiered and commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Danny Elfman was commissioned to write a piece by the American Composers Orchestra in 2005.  The result was Serenada Schizophrana, which premiered at Carnegie Hall, and subsequently recorded at the Newman scoring stage with the Hollywood Studio Symphony. For the Hollywood Bowl, Elfman wrote a piece in 2006 called the Overeager Overture. 

Many composers’ works have been performed in concert halls as part of film music series.  John Williams among others continue to conduct concerts of their concert music with film music mixed in.  Even now live orchestras are performing to an entire film.  Composer John Debney turned his score for Passion of the Christ into the Passion of the Christ Symphony and eventually into a Passion Oratorio.  Howard Shore similarly transformed his music from epic Lord of the Rings trilogy into a symphony, which has been performed all over the world.

For some recordings, I recommend the Jascha Heifetz’s recording of Korngold’s Violin Concerto, Rozsa's Violin Concerto and Tema con Variazioni and Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie. 
For a compilation of John Williams film and concert works, the Music of America: John Williams is a great start. 

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