Category Archives: Film Music

Concert review: The John Wilson Orchestra – Cole Porter in Hollywood

The John Wilson Orchestra, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Thursday November 20th *****

It used to be the Christmas edition of the Radio Times that would work classic movie lovers into a festive frenzy each year, but these days, the biggest pre-Christmas thrill for film fans in Glasgow is the annual visit to the Concert Hall by the man who it wouldn’t be far-fetched to describe as the patron saint of Hollywood musicals: John Wilson.

In previous years, Wilson and his wonderful orchestra have brought programmes themed around the musicals of MGM and Fox, as well as by Richard Rodgers. This time, it was the Hollywood oeuvre of the great songwriter/composer Cole Porter which was celebrated, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death – a fact that prompted one old biddy in the audience to loudly respond “Aw”, as if news of Porter’s death was just breaking.

Good humour abounded, thanks partly to Wilson’s entertaining introductions and largely to the wit in Porter’s lyrics which the quartet of singers clearly relished performing. Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew Ford’s You’re the Top highlighted the fact that the song is akin to screwball comedy banter set to jazzy music. The dark side of Porter shone through on So In Love, while two less familiar ballads – Between You and Me and You Can Do No Wrong – were pure romance.

The star, however, was the band with its joyful playing, its obvious devotion to its conductor and its brilliance creating both a sumptuous, MGM-worthy sound and a swinging big band vibe. It seduced the audience with its glorious opening medley, and enthralled throughout – notably on the swoonsomely romantic Silk Stockings ballet. As Mr Porter might have said: “You’re the top, you’re the Hepburn posture. You’re the top; you’re the Wilson Orch’stra … ”

* First published in The Herald, Monday November 24th

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Concert review: The John Wilson Orchestra – That’s Entertainment

The John Wilson Orchestra: That’s Entertainment, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Friday November 22nd *****

It’s unlikely that there will ever be an orchestral concert that’s as thrilling to this movie fan as the first MGM Musicals concert that conductor John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra gave in Glasgow in 2010, with a quartet of singers including Curtis Stigers and Seth MacFarlane. But Friday’s return to the Concert Hall with a programme drawn from the same source came close on a number of occasions.

It’s not just the fact that Wilson has lovingly reconstructed the lost orchestrations by the great arrangers and composers who worked for MGM’s Freed Unit and who gave the studio its luxurious, distinctive house style. Nor is it the fact that he always has the best musicians in his band to play them. It’s the thrill of hearing songs you have only ever heard on TV or record, in your home, being brought dynamically to life with the utmost attention to every detail of the original version of which everyone is so fond.

In 2010, Singin’ in the Rain and The Trolley Song produced this magical effect. On Friday, the stand-outs were A Couple of Swells – brilliantly performed by Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew Ford – and High Society’s I Love You Samantha, with trumpeter Mike Lovett in the Louis Armstrong role.

Other highlights included a spectacular I Got Rhythm, with the orchestra giving the fabulous Dorsey band a run for its money, numbers from Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, and the entire An American in Paris ballet. Lowlights? The £7 programme price tag, and the borderline scary crush as a good proportion of the full house tried to leave the Concert Hall onto Killermont Street – via one exit.

First published in The Herald, Monday November 25th

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Hooray for Hollywood – review

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Hooray for Hollywood, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday December 7
****

Anyone who fell under the spell of the charismatic John Wilson and his sensational orchestra after watching them performing their concert of classic songs from MGM musicals would know that that show was a hard act to follow. The MGM concert featured some of the greatest numbers ever written for the movies and in the most sumptuous arrangements; and the Glasgow concert last November was spine-tingling from start to finish.

This year’s tour – which rolled into the Usher Hall on Wednesday – focused on songs from musicals made by every other studio. RKO, Disney, Paramount, Warners and Fox were all represented (rather bizarrely in a couple of the choices) – and while the concert featured fewer thrills than last year’s, it still produced magical moments a-plenty from the swinging 42nd Street which introduced the quartet of singers through to such stand-out duets as Noah Stewart and Sarah Fox’s electrifying One Hand, One Heart and Stewart’s commanding solo on Sigmund Romberg’s Serenade.

These two more operatic singers produced the showstopping vocal moments; Kim Criswell and Matthew Ford were at times overpowered and overshadowed by the orchestra behind them, notably on the exquisite The Man Who Got Away.

Indeed, the John Wilson Orchestra – the happiest and most animated orchestra you’re likely to see – was THE main star of the evening: not only did it produce a gorgeous and luxurious sound but its choreographed bow-taking (each section did a wee comedy turn) couldn’t have been better staged by the great Busby Berkeley himself …

* Published in The Scotsman, Friday December 9.

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Music to be Murdered By – review

Psycho Live/Music to be Murdered By, City Halls, Glasgow *****

Thank God for conductor John Wilson and the BBC SSO. Without them, fans of the great Bernard Herrmann would not have had the chance to be immersed for 24 hours in some of the most iconic, haunting and emotive music ever written for film – and to hear some of it played live for the first time in Glasgow.

The Herrmann weekend kicked off on Saturday evening with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with Herrmann’s classic score being played live by the orchestra. Despite a technical hitch near the beginning, this was a hugely enjoyable experience – on several levels. It was a treat to see the film on the big screen and in the company of others, rather than home alone on a TV, and it was a thrill to hear the music up close and being performed by the dynamic strings of the SSO. Indeed, at points it was difficult to stay focused on the screen, so animated were the musicians.

The murder scenes may not have the same impact now as they did on first viewing, but what the slightly disjointed effect of having the film music played live highlighted was how much of the work in the iconic shower scene was done by those shrieking strings. This was further underlined on Sunday afternoon when the orchestra played the Psycho music in a concert setting: all the contact between knife and skin is in the music (you never see it), and this music stands up all by itself.

Although the sell-out Psycho Live performance was obviously considered the hotter ticket, the Sunday afternoon concert turned out to be the more satisfying, since it allowed the audience to focus entirely on the music. No film composer evokes the windmills of troubled minds or gets under the skin like Herrmann, and this concert – again featuring sensational playing, this time by the whole orchestra – was exhilarating from start to finish, with the almost unbearably beautiful and electrifying Vertigo music the most breath-taking five minutes of the weekend.

Other highlights included the swoonsomely sumptuous Marnie opening titles, the rousing overture from North by Northwest and a handful of suites by other film composers, including David Raksin (whose Laura music should be played more often) and Constant Lambert, whose Anna Karenina score revealed similarities with Herrmann’s work.

Only complaint? A complementary season of films at the GFT wouldn’t have gone amiss – and might have helped satisfy the withdrawal symptoms inevitable after this glorious Bernard Herrmann binge.

You can watch some of the Music to be Murdered By concert online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00kld89

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Top 10 Bernard Herrmann-Scored Films

To accompany my last post, on John Wilson’s views on Bernard Herrmann and his film work, here’s my pick of the best movies to feature his music.

* Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles’s groundbreaking fictional biopic of a newspaper magnate featured an equally groundbreaking score which was more spare than what had gone before, and made great use of the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra to create a sense of darkness and an oppressive atmosphere. 

* The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947). Beguiling period romantic fantasy about the love affair between a young widow (Gene Tierney) and the ghost of a gruff sea captain (Rex Harrison). Herrmann’s exquisite score conveyed all the longing and desire that couldn’t be  portrayed onscreen. This YouTube film is a lovely homage to this cult movie which, I reckon, would make a wonderful double bill with the equally romantic and beautifully scored (by John Barry) 1981 time travel film Somewhere in Time.

* On Dangerous Ground (1952). Herrmann named his romantic score for this cultish mood piece about the slow-burning relationship between tough city cop Robert Ryan and a blind girl as his favourite of his own work. 

* The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Herrmann not only wrote the extraordinarily tense music for Hitchcock’s kidnapping drama (which stars James Stewart and Doris Day), but is also seen conducting the orchestra (playing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata) at the Albert Hall in the climactic scene.  

* Vertigo (1958). Herrmann’s repetitive, pulsating, spiraling music not only reflects James Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak but enables the audience to experience its  effects as well. 

And as for the love theme … well, listen and sigh..

* North By Northwest (1959). One of the sexiest and most tongue-in-cheek Hitchcock films, it stars Cary Grant in a case of mistaken identity and has a suitably quirky, though magnificent and dramatic, Herrmann score – a fandango, of all things. John Wilson says: “I’d love to do that film with the live orchestra….” 

* Psycho (1960): The ultimate Hitchcock thriller, and the ultimate Herrmann score – which John Wilson says “does stand upon its own, it’s wonderfully unique”. Janet Leigh stars as the young woman on the run who soon regrets checking into the Bates Motel.. Right from the start, the music lets us know that something bad is going to happen…  

* Cape Fear (1962). So effective was Herrmann’s thunderous, menacing score for J Lee Thompson’s terrifying thriller – in which Robert Mitchum played the psychotic Max Cady – that Martin Scorsese retained it for his 1991 remake. 

* Marnie (1964). The lush romantic music for this film outclasses the performances by Tippi Hedren as the eponymous kleptomaniac, and Sean Connery as the man who wants to save her. 

* Taxi Driver (1976): With this brooding, and intermittently romantic, urban-sounding score, Herrmann ended his career as he had started it – at the top, with one of the most important films of the decade, Martin Scorsese’s study of disturbed Robert De Niro’s descent into violence. 

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John Wilson on Bernard Herrmann

The zombies of Brad Pitt’s new movie may have left Glasgow but there are going to be some traumatised souls wandering around the city centre again next Saturday. Why? Because – as part of a weekend centenary celebration of the music of film composer Bernard Herrmann – the classic 1960 Alfred Hitchcock chiller Psycho is being screened at the City Halls, with its iconic, nerve-jangling music being performed live by the BBC SSO.

The tension in the audience is likely to be tangible according to conductor John Wilson, whose last visit to Glasgow was with his own orchestra and their joyous concert of songs from MGM musicals. Raising his arm as if about to impersonate the knife-wielding psycho of the film, he explains: “I’ve done this before and during the build-up to the shower scene, the tension was absolutely palpable. I could hear people whimpering behind me when I was poised to give the downbeat to this shrieking, stabbing violin quote.”

Even seasoned viewers of the film are likely to feel renewed tension from the live performance of the score. And there’s certainly plenty of stress involved for Wilson whose job it will be to synchronise the orchestra’s playing with the action on the screen. He’ll be relying on an analogue clock to keep him right. “I prefer to do it that way,” he explains. “You have a timecode on the score and you have a clock which is synchronised to the film.” Which is exactly how Herrmann probably recorded the original score with his studio orchestra? “Yes, but they had lots of attemps at it till they got it spot-on. We’ve got one!”

Won’t he be a nervous wreck, especially given how unsettling and edgy the music is? “It is stressful,” he admits, “but it won’t be anything like as bad as when I did The Wizard of Oz – and I had Munchkins to deal with! There was no margin of error there because I had singing as well as dialogue to synchronise with, and only an eighth of a second to play with. It takes that time for the eyes and ears to notice that if the music and the image are not in synch. Psycho is more straightforward – and the music is less technical, though very effective.”

Indeed, there are few Hollywood composers whose work is as effective or as integral to a film’s artistic success as Bernard Herrmann – especially where his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock are concerned. In those films, a Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is almost always a partner to the action onscreen. It’s impossible to recall Vertigo without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme or its eerie arpegios (recently quoted in – of all things – the hit TV cop show New Tricks), or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest, or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho, without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.

So integral was Herrmann’s contribution to his films that Hitchcock would tell him: “I’ve left reel three for you”. And the composer would fill it with music which, as Wilson says, gave you everything you couldn’t see. “He seemed to have an unerring instinct for catching the mood of a film, right up to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his last score, and he was so technically adroit in so many different styles that he could pinpoint musically exactly what the subtext of a scene was. He never took you in the wrong direction, as it were.”

You only need to watch Janet Leigh’s car journey in Psycho to understand this element of the power of a Herrmann score. If you play the scene without sound, Leigh could be en route to the supermarket or to pick her kids up from school; turn the volume on, and it’s immediately apparent that something very, very bad is going to happen. The music unnerves and unsettles. “It’s that unresolved harmony,” says Wilson. “It’s completely ambiguous. There’s lots of that in Herrmann’s music – you get shifting blocks of unresolved harmony, harmony that can never go anywhere.”

Herrmann – who started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane – used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters and help the audience understand their troubled minds. Did he change the function of film music?

“I think he did, in a number of ways,” says Wilson. “He was so determined and serious-minded, such a craftsman, that he raised the status of film music. Don’t forget Herrmann was a very, very highly regarded conductor and he had a career as a legitimate composer for the concert hall. He viewed the art of writing film music very seriously and he was a perfectionist. He was completely uncompromising in his choice of timbre and choice of instruments and he wouldn’t be dictated to by directors. He talked himself out of many jobs. But he fought for the cause of film music and was very erudite and articulate about it. He dragged the art of composing for the movies up a notch.”

At the same time, argues Wilson, Herrmann moved film music on from “that very opulent, late-romantic, Wagnerian/Straussian sort of sound” that the first generation of Hollywood composers, led by Max Steiner, had established. “I guess Herrmann was the first to incorporate into that style a leaner, more angular, more sparsely scored, less generic sort of sound.”

Wilson was first captivated by Herrmann’s music when he was a student at the Royal College of Music. “In my first year, I got all these LPs out of the library – LPs by Charles Gerhart and the National Philharmonic. He recorded a series on RCA of Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman and Miklos Rosza – all those film composers – and there was a Herrrmann one in there called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef or something like that. It had nine harps in it. Then I read about one he’d written with five organs.. and I was intrigued. Round about the same time I saw Vertigo for the first time, and I loved it. I love all those Hitchcock films.”

The best of those Hitchcock scores will be played in the second concert of the Herrmann centenary celebration weekend in Glasgow, along with music by some of his colleagues, among them David Raksin (Laura) and Alfred Newman (All About Eve). Wilson explains: “Herrmann is the singlemost effective composer of music for films but it doesn’t always stand up as well on its own in concerts – it’s too repetitive, it hasn’t any organic development in it and it’s so married to the films. Things like Vertigo occupy such a unique sort of sound world that you can give them an airing because people have the images in their heads already – but a lot of film music doesn’t stand up on its own in concerts.”

Having said that, Wilson remembers that he’ll be conducting some music from Marnie, the only Hitchcock film which is outclassed by its score. “Oh, the music in Marnie is sumptuous. I love the unrestrained romanticism of it,” sighs Wilson. “It would be difficult for any film to come up to the level of that score. It’s one of my favourites.”

* Psycho is showing at the City Halls, Glasgow, on Saturday 17 at 7.30pm. The Music to be Murdered By concert takes place at the City Halls on Sunday 18 at 3pm.

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Bernard Herrmann Centenary: June 29, 2011

When it comes to great movie composers, they don’t come much hipper than Bernard Herrmann, whose centenary falls today. During his lifetime and in the 30 years before his death, Herrmann has regularly been rediscovered and championed by younger film and music aficionados.

How many long-dead composers have had their work recycled for a Quentin Tarantino? Bernard Herrmann did: his theme for the 1968 British film Twisted Nerve featured in Kill Bill Volume 1, in 2003.

While movies such as Psycho and Cape Fear have been remade for new audiences, their Herrmann-penned scores have been considered sacrosanct. Suites of timeless music for these films and other from the voluminous Herrmann back catalogue are regularly performed in concert halls.

But what is it about Herrmann’s music that has made it so enchanting and so enduring? It is catchy and memorable, but more importantly, it is an integral part of a movie. It is as much of a factor in the artistic success of a film as the image. A Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is always a partner to the action onscreen.

It’s impossible to recall Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme, or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest (1959), or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho (1960), without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.

Herrmann and Hitchcock worked together on eight movies, the others being The Trouble With Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956) , Psycho, The Birds (1963; on which Herrmann worked as a sound designer) and Marnie (1964). Torn Curtain (1966), the first Hitchcock film in a decade to not have a Herrmann score – or indeed any music during its extended music scene – was a flop.

What made Herrmann the ideal partner for Hitchcock was his groundbreaking way of using music. When he started in Hollywood, most film composers were churning out post-Romantic style scores, and the conventional function of music was to communicate intellectual ideas to the viewer in a shorthand form. Music could suggest  period of a place; it could comment on the image onscreen, or hint at trouble immediately ahead.

Herrmann started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane, and it was an apt debut because the young composer, like the young director, wrote his own rules.

He used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters. Period and place didn’t enter into it. (After all, what has the fandango, a Spanish dance form, got to do with the plot of North by Northwest? Absolutely nothing.) In some films, such as the beguiling supernatural romance The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), the romance between a young widow and a dead sea captain is almost entirely created by the score which conveys longing and desire in a way that couldn’t work in the script.

Herrmann helped Hitchcock’s audience better understand the troubled minds of the characters they were watching onscreen. James Stewart’s obsession in both The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which he’s on a race against time to find his kidnapped son and prevent an assassination, and in Vertigo, in which his obsession with Kim Novak is fuelled by guilt and lust, is not only underlined by the repetitive, eerie score; it is partly evoked by it.

Herrmann  started his career at the top – and he ended it there too. His last film was Martin Scorsese’s psychological study Taxi Driver, one of the most important movies of the 1970s.

In the years running up to his unexpected death, aged 64 in 1975, Herrmann, that most modern of movie composers, was enjoying collaborations with many rising stars of modern cinema. Since then, and thanks to them, his music has rarely been out of fashion.

* I’ll be discussing Bernard Herrmann’s work on the Movie Cafe, BBC Radio Scotland on Thursday at 1.15pm, and The Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh is showing a terrific season of Herrmann-scored films from today.

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