The concert halls are filling up with cinephiles. In New York, the Philharmonic performed the score to Stanley Kubrick's 2001. Detroit presented concerts devoted to the film music of John Williams. And in Lyon, as part of the Festival Lumière, we played a recent soundtrack for the 1929 Hitchcock thriller, Blackmail, complete with the restored version of the film.
Why this explosion of music and the movies?
It would seem that after decades of derision, film scores are finally beginning to take their place as true descendants of opera, and they are now appreciated by not only film fans but concertgoers as well.
Not that great composers shunned the form altogether. Saint-Saens, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Walton, Copland and many others successfully integrated their own styles into the tapestry of the films they were asked to score. Still, there was skepticism on many fronts. The use of the popular culture did not sit well with many high-art minded folks.
Certainly Hollywood produced many masters of the genre, including Korngold, Steiner, Tiomkin, Newman (all of them) and Goldsmith. But for the most part, performances were limited to special evenings or exclusively Pops concerts. It was as if the art of film music composition was somehow a lesser form of entertainment than symphonic or operatic presentations.
We certainly owe a great deal of this melding of cultures to John Williams. He brought back the sweeping soundtracks that are reminiscent of the epics from Warner Bros., Fox and Paramount. His scores, which sometimes are present throughout an entire film, are truly intentioned poems, not only illuminating the story but telling their own as well.
When John took over the Boston Pops, he brought with him the expertise of a classically trained musician who dipped his feet in many waters. He championed forgotten masters as well as the classics, not to mention his own prodigious output. These days, we salute John, just as he did for so many others.
Part of his legacy has been to interest us in revisiting films that have long been absent from the general public's attention.
Each year in Lyon, at least for the past five, a major film festival runs throughout the city. It is named for the Lumière brothers, those two pioneers of cinema. Old meets new as fans and filmmakers gather to screen an astonishing number of movies, from cinema classics to rare films and premieres.
2013 honorees include Quentin Tarantino and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The city is packed with visitors enjoying an almost 24-hour-a-day spectacle of film and film-related discussion. The Orchestre national de Lyon (ONL) took part for the first time, underlining one of the subthemes at this year's festival.
It seems that when talkies first appeared, there were a number of studios and directors who abandoned the silent moviemaking they knew and loved entirely. Others, including Alfred Hitchcock, made two versions of the same film, one with dialogue and the other without. Blackmail was such a movie.
Those in the know feel that the silent is better than the verbose, and in 2009, the British actor and composer Neil Brand put together a full orchestra score for this film. It works quite well, and in keeping with the ethic of the day, no technical aides were used in our performance. Gone were the click tracks, time codes, punches and streamers. All that we had to go on was in the form of directions that were printed in the score and seen on the screen. With continual music throughout the 75-minute film, it was an exhilarating, though sometimes frustrating, challenge.
So if the dialogue card on screen said, "Alice, come here," that was my cue to be at exactly the spot in the music where that occurs. Or if the instruction was simply a screen action, such as a camera angle change, again I had to hit the mark dead on. Once in a while there was an actual sound effect, like a bell ringing when a customer entered the shop. These were very difficult to coordinate, and I had to view the film more than a dozen times to get the feel for the right moment.
When I missed a cue, it seemed proper to blame the actors for coming in late or early. They usually got it right the second time.