Maestros and the movies

Celebrating the magicians who set films to music

January 19, 2003|By Tim Smith | By Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

In the beginning, there was film. And sound. The two have been inseparable for roughly a century.

But wait -- the first movies were silent, and "talkies" only arrived in the late 1920s, so what's this about a century of sound and film?

It's simple.

"Silent films were never silent," says composer and conductor John Williams, whose memorable film scores have earned him five Oscars. "There was always music to go with them."

Once sound-on-film became possible, the marriage of the visual and aural arts blossomed even more, producing an extraordinary musical legacy. During a 10-day festival starting Thursday at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra will offer audiences an opportunity to explore that legacy.

"Soundtracks: Music and Film" will include extensive repertoire, from the first film score written by a major classical composer (Camille Saint-Saens in 1908) to some of Williams' most popular movie music (E.T., Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc.). But that's just part of the picture. "As far as I know, this is the most extensive festival of its kind," says Williams.

Inside the process

One of the concerts -- "In Synch: How Do They Do It?" -- will let listeners in on the actual mechanics of matching music and image, right down to "click tracks," "streamers" and "mickey-mousing." On that night, providing this insider's guide to film scoring will be Williams, NSO music director Leonard Slatkin and film director Stanley Donen (Singing in the Rain, Charade, et al.).

"I don't think something like this -- how music has been put into film -- has ever been done before in the context of a concert situation," Slatkin says.

Another program will look at European film scores by such eminent composers as William Walton and Dmitri Shostakovich. And on another night, Fritz Lang's iconic 1926 silent film Metropolis will be shown while the orchestra plays a new score assembled by John Goberman from music by Grieg, Bartok and Schoenberg. Lectures and panel discussions will complement the performances, offering deeper looks into various aspects of film music and addressing such topics as Hollywood vs. Washington during the McCarthy Era.

Incorporating the world of movies, let alone a technical program like "In Synch," into an orchestra's regular subscription series is in itself a novelty. "I want to put film music in a different light, away from the pops programs where it usually gets placed," Slatkin says, "and treat it much the same way as we do excerpts from ballet or opera."

"Leonard has a personal feeling for what goes on out here," says Williams, Slatkin's co-artistic director for "Soundtracks," from his California home. "He has a special interest in film music. Both his parents, who I knew and worked with a lot, were in studio orchestras. His father [Felix Slatkin] was concertmaster at 20th Century Fox when I played in the orchestra. I played my first film score with him; I think it was South Pacific."

Slatkin's mother, Eleanor Aller, was principal cellist for the Warner Brothers orchestra. During last year's NSO festival, "Journey to America: A Musical Immigration," Slatkin led a program that included music from Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for the Bette Davis / Paul Henreid movie, Deception ; the cello solos on the original soundtrack were played by Aller.

Slatkin's affinity for this Hollywood milieu obviously runs deep. So does his affinity for Williams. "But I am not doing this festival because I had a Hollywood background," Slatkin says. "First, I'm doing it out of respect for John. Second, out of respect for what the motion picture industry has produced for music."

The opening program for "Soundtracks" will be devoted entirely to Williams' works, but not just for the movies. Some of his concert works, including a bassoon concerto called The Five Sacred Trees, will be included, too. (The composer will conduct the music on Thursday; when the same program is reprised on the last day of the festival, Slatkin will do the conducting.)

"I was one of the first persons to do John's concert works when people thought of him as only a film composer," Slatkin says. "His concert music has a real identity that comes through most persuasively. People forget how gifted he is; he has his own language, his own voice."

Composers by coast

On another program, Slatkin and Williams will take turns on the podium. "I do music by the East Coast group -- Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, who went to L.A. to do some film writing," Slatkin says. "John does composers who settled out there -- Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann."

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