The following articles were written in May, shortly after the Nordic premiere of Pas de Deux in Stavanger. They have been left unaltered as a reminder of the bright and eventful time in the months preceding James Horner’s death, both for the musicians and fans alike. We also present here, our final interview with James Horner, conducted on the morning of May 14. 2015, together with Mari and Håkon Samuelsen.
A huge thank you to Mari Samuelsen, Håkon Samuelsen, Torodd Wigum, Eric Rigler and Clara Sanabras for your time and your kindness in talking with me for these interviews. Also a very special thank you to Mari, Håkon and Torodd for your generosity in welcoming me to attend the rehearsals prior to the concert.
I am forever grateful to you all.
Many were surprised when it was first announced that James Horner was returning to the concert world with a double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra. In Norway, the surprise was even bigger when it was also made known that it was commissioned and written for the two Norwegian siblings Mari and Håkon Samuelsen. The two are well known to the general public in Norway, having been in the public spotlight from a young age and producing an annual classical Christmas concert, which is also broadcast internationally.
After the tremendously successful premiere in Stavanger, we sat down with the Samuelsens and James Horner for a talk about their collaboration. It was natural to start with discussing the massive response from the audience after the concert, with a standing ovation lasting for several minutes!
Håkon Samuelsen: The audience was absolutely amazing. We were thrilled to play for them and with the whole package that they prepared here in Stavanger with the orchestra, the hall. It was really great. They seemed really happy, it was a good reception for the piece and for the rest of the concert as well.
James Horner I thought it was amazing. I thought the whole evening was brilliant, and the orchestral playing was great. And the audience’s reaction, you couldn’t get a better reaction than that. It was pretty amazing.
Mari Samuelsen: I think it was great. I’m really happy that the Scandinavian premiere happened here in Stavanger. It’s a very innovative orchestra and they are very flexible. I think they put together a beautiful evening, and I was happy that the audience was so mixed – it was quite young. I think it also reached out to people not only going to subscription concerts who only go the concert because they happened to have a season ticket. They wanted to be here, and that’s not always a given.
When premiering Pas de Deux for their home audience, they chose the city of Stavanger as the location for the concert. Both the city and the orchestra have a reputation for innovation, which was intriguing to Mari and Håkon:
Mari Samuelsen: I think Stavanger is the most forward-thinking and most international city we have in Norway. When they look at people to collaborate with, they don’t necessarily look inside our own country but look abroad, and that can be interesting.
The concert included several pieces known from James Horner’s many scores over the years, but the highlight of the concert was Pas de Deux. Writing the double concerto proved a new challenge for the experienced composer. Without the framework of a film, the entire composition had to come purely from his own heart and imagination:
James Horner: The main difference is that in writing for film, I write to an image and that is what inspires me. So I have a film, a visual, that I’m writing to. In writing a piece that’s a commission for soloists, you don’t have that tool to work with. You have to go purely on your imagination of what a piece would be and it’s a lot like painting. A lot depends on the personalities of the soloists; that has a lot to do with it. But it’s a slightly different process as I’m not writing for a film. So I’m always deciding how avant garde the piece should be, or how modern, or how conservative or how pretty or dissonant – these are all decisions I have to make, trying to attract an audience, trying to make it a good piece for the soloists. At the same time I try to remain very collaborative, so whether it is working with a director or working with a soloist – that is the same exchange of ideas.
JHFM: Did the three of you communicate a lot along the way?
Håkon Samuelsen: Yes, luckily enough. Not all composers are willing to do that. James has been fantastic to work with.
Mari Samuelsen: … and open too!
Håkon Samuelsen: I would say, also that you’ve had time for yourself without our influence disturbing, but we were invited into the process.
Mari Samuelsen: We got to see drafts.
James Horner: They came to my flat in London and we played together – yeah, it was very collaborative. It’s so lovely to work in this medium and work with people that understand music. In the film world, that is not always the case. You work with directors who may understand, but you also have producers who may not understand. It’s more of a business atmosphere.
JHFM: More bureaucratic, maybe?
James Horner: More bureaucratic, more people and decisions don’t get made. It’s just a different process.
A piece that evokes strong emotions, Pas de Deux takes us on a musical journey through James Horner’s musical world, but also on a journey within ourselves with its meditative, pastoral and contemplative character, and warm, inviting atmosphere. These characteristics can also be found in other Horner-scores such as Iris and The Spitfire Grill.
JHFM: Do [these colors] represent some of your favorite musical colors?
James Horner: I don’t know – I think my harmonic language is me. But the pieces that hold that together sort of change a little bit. I love to use sparkly colors – they are probably always present. It gives this sort of magical quality. I am very much an orchestral person in that I like to paint in what I find to be pretty colors. That is probably the most recognizable thing in the piece in terms of orchestrations that I use a lot.
Håkon Samuelsen: A signature?
James Horner: I don’t know if it’s a signature, but there’s a sparkle. I don’t write dark music, it’s very difficult for me. I can do it, it’s a special thing, a special color and that is a color that was not involved in this particular piece. To write for low brass, it projects a different energy for me.
Håkon Samuelsen: That is exactly why we asked James, it was a dream for us to have him write for us. Because the whole thought behind it was that when people heard the piece, it was something they could take with them home, something melodic.
Mari Samuelsen: Some people of the audience came yesterday ‘I have been so looking forward to hearing this piece and I wanted to wait until being here with the orchestra, and I sat down and it took me a minute or two, then I just came into this world’. If you then just follow, and try to sit down and imagine following two dancers, two people, moving together, apart, together, apart, being one voice, then two voices, and try to follow their path throughout the piece, how they have some struggles and then they are together. That is very interesting.
The album containing Pas de Deux was released in Norway the week of the Stavanger concert. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, it even made it to the top of the official Norwegian record chart, a feat not accomplished by a classical album for 20 years. Apart from the double concerto by James Horner, the album contains pieces by Arvo Pärt, Ludovico Einaudi and Giovanni Sollima. We asked the siblings how these pieces were selected.
Mari Samuelsen: It’s been a long path with a lot of different opinions. I am very happy we ended up going to put together pieces after we knew how Pas de Deux would sound. Many producers had a lot of wishes they wanted included, way before we knew anything. Then we got to know, not all of it, but sort of how this would turn out. Alex Buhr was very into finding kind of an atmosphere for the whole album. I think with Sollima, Pärt and what we have ended up with, it’s sort of a red line throughout the whole album that I find very tasteful.
Håkon Samuelsen: It leaves Pas de Deux as the obvious main work, while the other pieces are more atmospheric and a little more in the background. I find those pieces are all constructed very minimalistic, so they have a very meditative part and a very technical part.
Mari Samuelsen: Pas de Deux was recorded in November, while the rest was recorded in January. All with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mari and Håkon have repeatedly stated how they are looking not only to expand the repertoire for violin and cello, but also to reach new audiences with their music. When listening to the album, one wonders if they have a special message they want to convey through the music on the album:
Håkon Samuelsen: Yes, that was again the dream that came true, that he would do this with his language and writing, which is so inviting. Again, so that the audience will get something from a concert. These days, you have a lot of composers that are very conservative, very abstract. We do that music as well, but we feel that with this music we give the audience something that they remember and will stay with them.
JHFM: James, what about you?
James Horner: I feel the same way. The album has to be sort of wonderful to listen to, and certainly the piece that I wrote has to be lovely. I use the word “magical”, it has to draw an audience in and be accessible. I think the album and the piece really does that well.
Mari Samuelsen: We spoke about that throughout the period of working together, how you can see the tendencies of the big festivals, the big institutions, the orchestras how they are trying to be more open minded. So instead of coming out with the Brahm’s double or the standard, we wanted to create a new way, and together with James we are just very grateful.
JHFM: It’s a complex piece, but still very accessible.
James Horner: It is a very complex piece, but it is not a cerebral piece. It is written with a lot of emotion and a lot of heart. And that is conveyed by the people that are playing and that is why the casting of who does what is so important. I never think cerebrally when I write, I always try to write from the heart.
In closing, we were curious if James, Mari and Håkon had any future projects lined up that they were able to talk about at the time.
Mari Samuelsen: I was actually talking to Eric Rigler last night. I would love to do something with the Uillean Pipes! And meeting Clara, I mean, this was one of the great things about this coming together like this, as Håkon and I finally got to know these other fantastic musicians working with James. So I think for our future plans, new combinations are always interesting to us. I just came up with that last night, and I think he wanted to do something as well.
JHFM: James, any projects you can talk about?
James Horner: I’m always doing movie stuff – that’s my day job. I’m looking at several things now, but haven’t really decided which project to take. But I would love to work with Mari and Håkon again. It is true, when you write music, I always try to use colors and people that I think would be lovely together, but that you’ve never heard together. And the combinations is what makes something that seems so ordinary, when married together it’s something never done before and yet it’s so simple and beautiful.
The success of Pas de Deux not only proves James Horner still can deliver stunning music for the concert world, but also that this kind of music also appeals to the general public. Whatever projects lie ahead, we look forward to hearing the results.