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Close Encounters with Movie Music & John Mauceri

by Jeffrey Rossman

November 24, 2009, Chapel Hill, NC: A four-performance run at different venues ended at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall; the concerts featured the North Carolina Symphony playing a spectacular program of music written for the movies, or in some way connected with composers who had great influence on those who did. The conductor and amiable and enlightening host was John Mauceri, Chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts. It would take up the bulk of my allotted space to list all of his accomplishments, conducting positions held, and honors received, but for this concert it will suffice to say that he is one of the most knowledgeable and recognized masters of music written for the movies, its history and influences, and he has nearly unfettered access to great scores that have been gathering dust, unheard, for seventy years or more.

More than just a hodgepodge of music from selected movies, this concert was a carefully prepared and thought-out presentation that was also a type of musical “six degrees of separation.” Everything played was either directly influenced or composed by Arnold Schoenberg or Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

The program was called “Hollywood Émigrés and Protégés,” and the first two pieces combined these two concepts and composers. The opener was a little-known fanfare written by Schoenberg for a Hollywood Bowl concert, but it was Korngold’s "Fanfare from Kings Row" (starring Ronald Reagan) that really perked up our ears. Embedded in this brief piece, clearly and unambiguously, were the main themes from John Williams’ score to Star Wars and even a hint of ideas used in Superman – more on this later.

What we got to hear for the remainder of the first half were two works we might never hear again in a live performance – certainly not on the same program. Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony is a two movement work whose composition spans thirty years. It has elements of his 12-tone system but travels full circle to his less austere style and back again. This rarely-performed work, an enlightening experience, was performed with great finesse and precision by Mauceri and the orchestra.

One of the iconic moments in the history of cinema is the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But as great a cinematic triumph as it is, the entire film would not be nearly as effective/frightening without the music of Bernard Herrmann. Mauceri, having access to the original archive materials, presented us with the rare treat of "Psycho: A Narrative for Orchestra." Written just for strings because of budget constraints, it was fascinating to hear and see this remarkable score played so intensely – you almost expected to see Anthony Perkins, dressed as his mother and wielding a knife, flash across the stage.

Between the selections, Mauceri gave very interesting stories about the works, the composers, and the influences that they had on one another, some from as far away as Vienna – which brings us to Richard Strauss. His influence and championing of Korngold led to the latter's increased reputation; he eventually becoming one of the great composers of Hollywood. Mauceri chose “Moonlight,” a brief interlude by Strauss from his late opera Capriccio to open the second half. This was one of those wonderful moments when you hear previously unknown music of such tremendous emotion and brilliance that you are thankful to know there is still so much out there to learn.

Most of this half was taken up with the U.S. premiere of "The Adventures of Robin Hood: A Symphonic Portrait," composed by Korngold and edited by Mauceri. This Academy Award-winning score, written in 1938, was only recently resurrected and premiered in Vienna in 2007. This wonderfully evocative and programmatic music contains sections that sound as difficult as anything in the traditional repertoire. My only complaint is that perhaps part of the thirty minutes spent on this work might have been better used to feature a different selection for a better cross-section of movie music.

Finally, we arrived at a composition by John Williams, the person who, for more than thirty years, has personified movie music, especially big blockbusters. As mentioned earlier, Williams has been known to “borrow” themes sometimes, and many stodgy academics and curmudgeonly critics use this to bludgeon and dismiss him outright. But when you get the rare opportunity to hear the original score of excerpts from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you are swept away with his genius, especially his spectacular orchestration skills. At the beginning you can hear the influence of Schoenberg as this is a truly atonal section that slowly morphs into the famous five-note theme that is used throughout the film as the device to communicate across the universe.

There is no shortage of concerts featuring “pops” arrangements of themes from famous movies, but it is exceedingly rare to hear an evening of original scores as actually played in the film. We are fortunate to have the North Carolina Symphony and their creative programming and especially John Mauceri, who knows this music better than anyone.

   
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