AMERICAN YOUTH SYMPHONY HONORS JAMES HORNER
On Saturday, November 13, the film Apollo 13 was screened with an orchestra performing James Horner's music live to picture. This Film Concerts Live entry was premiered in July 2018 with the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Other orchestras then began programming this concert, first with the City Light Symphony Orchestra of Luzern last May, following with dates already planned for 2020 in the United States and Europe. This type of event, which brings together a film projected on a large screen and an orchestra, has been very popular in recent years. This makes it possible to introduce variety to the orchestras' schedules and to bring together cinephiles and music lovers. James Horner Film Music has covered and reviewed the exceptional Titanic Live and Aliens Live at the Royal Albert Hall. What was so special about last Saturday's concert that we had to write this time? Continue reading to learn.
Photo by Jean-Baptiste Martin
First of all, the concert took place in Royce Hall in the heart of the University of California, Los Angeles campus. James Horner in concert is always a treat, but whenever James Horner's music is performed in California, where the composer was born, studied, and lived and worked for much of his career, the event is imbued with a special aura. This was certainly the case earlier this year in June with the New West Symphony Orchestra's Titanic Live under the stars of Thousand Oaks, a city located exactly between Camarillo Airport, where he often flew his airplanes, and where he lifted off for the last time the day he died, and Calabasas, the site of his magical studio and where he lived with his wife and daughters. Here again, the significance of the place is great: Royce Hall is distinguished not only for its impeccable beauty and refined acoustics but also for having welcomed renowned musicians such as George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Arnold Schoenberg, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein… James Horner knew this concert hall well. After his Master's Degree at the USC Thornton School of Music, he continued his studies a few steps away at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA. This chamber and the campus are therefore part of the composer's universe. UCLA's predominantly pedestrian lanes and byways are lined with trees and expansive lawns. This green complex forms a matrix in which beautiful, stately beige and ochre brick buildings are inserted. In this pleasant environment, James Horner flourished and learned much in his four-year tenure before leaving to work for the cinema. The fact that forty years later, his music resonates here is a strong symbolism.
Then, Apollo 13 was the annual concert of the American Youth Symphony's (AYS) Hollywood Project, an event that began with composer David Newman, a member of the AYS Board of Directors. David Newman had collaborated with James Horner where he conducted the music for Humanoids From The Deep (1980) and Battle Beyond The Stars (1980), he was also a consultant on Wolfen (1981). In 2013 the two artists found themselves with the two magnificent Hollywood concerts in Vienna. This November 2019 concert thus writes a new page in the history of the two musicians.
Finally, this concert was marked by the presence of the composer's relatives. Wife, daughter, mother, brothers had come to attend accompanied by faithful collaborators such as Jim Henrikson, Ian Underwood, and Simon Rhodes. The word had gone out to come and pay tribute to this extraordinary man and his career, and come they did. Industry peers honored his career with their attendance, including James Newton Howard and David Newman–whose career as a film music composer is nearly eclipsed by his renown as a conductor of film music In fact, he conducted a short selection from Apollo 13 at the Hollywood Bowl’s musical celebration of the Apollo program earlier this August.
Indeed, one other notable trait of Royce Hall is its simultaneous size and intimacy. The Hollywood Bowl, being the “other” common Los Angeles venue for the enjoyment of film music (both performed to picture and performed on its own) seats over 18,000. The Pacific Symphony, which primiered the composer’s Flight, performed at the 3,000-capacity Segerstrom Hall in nearby Costa Mesa. While Royce Hall is not the largest performance hall in the United States, it comfortably seats 1800, with not a bad seat in the house. Phenomenal acoustics, gorgeous and lofty vaulted ceiling, and comfortable seats make for a venue that is simultaneously spacious and intimate. This was wholly appropriate for a performance that is tasked with capturing all the majesty and raw horsepower of the launch of the most powerful machine ever operated, the thrilling adventure to the furthest reaches we’ve ever dared to grasp, the heroism of thousands to bring three astronauts home, back down to the fear born for distant loved ones, from a mother’s resolute confidence in her son’s abilities to the tender comfort a terrified but strong wife who must provide to her confused and scared little boy.
Royce Hall is home to the American Youth Symphony, whose mission is to prepare young musicians for the rigors and artistic opportunities of professional musicianship. Every seat in the house was an extremely modest $18, though the performance was followed by a (considerably pricier) fund raising dinner to help fund program. Those who participate in the program receive numerous benefits, but those who invest in them are generously rewarded by top tier performances. In past years, under the baton of David Newman, the AYS has done multi-year explorations and celebrations of the music of Jerry Goldsmith and Danny Elfman. Our Los Angeles correspondent has attended several previous film music performances by this orchestras, and can attest that their artistry and technique, combined with the majesty of the venue, matches the expectations one would hear in the more celebrated concert halls in the world. The word “youth” in their performing name, utterly belies the consummate professionalism and exquisite execution of their art they’ve consistently demonstrated on stage in this hallowed hall.
The few things this ensemble lacked in bringing the score to Apollo 13 to life was synth programing and… well, Annie Lennox. A full woman’s choir was present to provide the gorgeous vocals penned by Horner to give voice to the more ethereal, whisper-ish moments in the narrative (though unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room on stage to see both them and the stage at the same time; they’re performance was from behind the screen). And fulfilling the unenviable task of replicating the unmistakable vocal lines of Annie Lenox was soprano, Karen Hogle Brown. While no one would mistake Brown’s voice for Lenox’s, her solo performance was spot on in timbre and emotiveness, such that the storytelling beats were performed flawlessly; if a familiar ear were unaware of Lenox’s unparalleled voice, its absence would never be missed, given what the audience was presented instead.
And the synths… again a trained ear, well familiar with the score, notices the absence of the jaunty undercurrents to the first few minutes of All Systems Go. Rather than ty to replicate the quasi-percussive nature of the synths with revised orchestrations, this presentation of the score opted to simply drop this element from the score. One could argue that while some of the storytelling nuances in the undertones were missing, it yielded a more satisfactory concert experience. The brass section got the expected workout, but the immediacy of the trumpets and horns was stunning within the confines of the concert hall, with no meddlesome downmixing attempting to balance orchestra with sound effects and dialogue.
In fact, Carlos Izcaray’s conducting was, while impeccably timed to the narrative and on-screen beats of the film, clearly led his orchestra to perform a concert of the film’s score. Anyone who came to see the movie purely for the movie, may have found themselves frustrated at the most musical moments obscuring key pieces of dialogue. (As both a film music nerd and a manned spaceflight geek, I’ve had all aspects of this film memorized years ago and had no problems filling in what I could not hear.) Among the most thrilling parts of the entire score was an especial focus on the trombone part performing its alternating 3/4 – 6/8 rhythm during the staging segment of the prolonged Launch sequence.
And while so much of the score was performed with an unapologetic gusto, one must also note the trembling strings and Copland-esque trumpet solos. Anyone familiar with the film’s score needn’t be reminded of the prominence of trumpet during the more introspective, yearning moments of the film from Lunar Dreams to the conclusion of The Darkside of the Moon. Nico Bejarano’s solo performance was both warm and clear, finding its footing deep within the explorer’s heart who knows the paradoxical comfort of home.
Hearing the entire score, performed with such immediacy, and combination of bravado and intimacy, really underscores what an expertly crafted film this is. Numerous times, the effect of the music, so well highlighted in this presentation, called attention to the economy of the screenplay itself. The action, dialog, and music formed a synthesis that is the acme of cinematic storytelling that all films reach for but so few achieve. One benefit of hearing a score performed live to picture, one has the rare opportunity to hear in concert musical moments that are often relegated to the second disc of “extras” on limited archival releases like Intrada’s definitive and long-awaited expanded edition earlier this year. Among so many gorgeously executed moments, a highlight to mention among them was the 44-seconds of score just as the crew is about to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, experiencing a tense moment of radio silence. Jim Lovell regards the giant, glowing blue orb of his home planet, as his wife gazes up out of the window. The callback to Alvo Part’s Fratres and Horner’s own score to Sneakers possesses a simultaneous majesty and wistfulness rarely embodied in music. In the film, this is underscored with synths, but here the orchestra attempts an interpretation that left goosebumps.
This Cosmic Connection immediately preceded the tension and triumph exhibited in Re-Entry and Splashdown. The tension was masterfully performed, each beat falling exactly where it needed to in order to heighten the fear and anticipation, allowing you to feel the fears of the mission controllers and family members, with a phenomenal release into such elated heights that I’ve rarely heard in concert. As familiar as one might be with the elation related in music at the end of this score, little could prepare one for the clarity and exaltation with which conductor and AYS music director Carlos Izcaray directed his capable orchestra and chorus to bring the film and concert to a rousing close.
AYS Board Chairman, Kevin Dretzka and Executive Director, Tara Aesquivel present Sara and Emily Horner the Honoree Award in honor of James Horner.
Following the concert, the fundraising dinner included a presentation honoring the life and career of James Horner and an award, received by Sara Horner. Reporting for Variety, Tim Grieving covered the event, where Sara honored Horner’s closest musical collaborators throughout the years, many of whom were on hand to accept such worthy laudations. His daughter, Emily, also spoke of her father and her gratitude for the recognition of his contributions and the enduring enthusiasm for his work. The sentiments offered by James’s widow and daughter echo what they’ve chosen to share with us when they invited us into their home and his studio over the last two years. We close our coverage of this special event with some thought’s Sara shared with us in the days following:
“It was a very emotional evening with emotional music! Apollo 13 is an amazing story of resilience and problem solving and for me at least speaks to American ingenuity and strength and our power as a nation. That more optimistic and celebratory time seems to be in deep contrast with the tone in our country today. As you can imagine the entire context of flight and pilots evoked Jame’s deep love of flying and certainly the manner of his death. So there was this interweaving of sorrow at having lost James with admiration for the incredible music, the accomplishments of the film makers, and of Nasa and America’s space program itself. The orchestra played so beautifully and did such an outstanding job it is simply impossible to think of them as “youth”. The conducting was warm and compassionate and the music flawless. I know James loved the players more than anyone else in the film making process and I know he would have absolutely loved this concert. He would have been deeply touched. Just a beautiful homage to James.”
Photo credit: Michael Bulbenko
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