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American Composers Festival 2014: From Screen to Score

Four major film composers take a break from Hollywood to present new concert works for Pacific Symphony’s 14th American Composers Festival

ACF spotlights four of Hollywood’s biggest and best on May 8-10: Elliot Goldenthal, James Horner, Howard Shore and John Williams

Hollywood Film MusicPacific Symphony’s critically-acclaimed American Composers Festival (ACF) continues for the 14th year with “From Screen to Score: New Concert Music by Famous Film Composers”—who happen to be four of today’s biggest Hollywood heavy-hitters: John Williams (“Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T., the Extra Terrestrial”), Howard Shore (“Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit,” “Hugo”), James Horner (“Titanic,” “Star Trek,” “Apollo 13”) and Elliot Goldenthal (“Alien 3,” “Frida” and “Batman and Robin”). Together, these iconic composers boast 11 Oscars and countless billions of box office dollars. They also hold the ironic position of simultaneously being the most-heard orchestral composers ever (the soundtrack for “Titanic” sold 30 million copies), yet their music is the least performed.

Although once disregarded by the modernist school of composition, film music has without a doubt come into its own as a fully recognized art form. And, of course, this recognition is not just academic. Millions of filmgoers have been exposed to and enriched by orchestral music through the movies. But debates over the value of film music versus concert music or what constitutes “commercial,” “serious” or “artistic” rage on. It is this controversy that lies at the heart of this ACF, as these extraordinary, if not revolutionary, composers prove their mettle through not film music but symphonic concert works.

Carl St.ClairLed by Music Director Carl St.Clair and curated by Richard Guerin, “From Screen to Score” takes place Thursday-Saturday, May 8-10, in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall; a preview talk with Alan Chapman begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25-$99. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 755-5799 or visit ACF, presented as part of the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation Classical series, is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts with additional support from media sponsor KPCC. “It is always an exciting moment when great film composers have the opportunity to step out of the world of movies and can present their ‘non-movie music’ to a concert audience,” says Music Director Carl St.Clair. “Without a storyline, plot or incredible sound effects, they have the opportunity to explore larger and longer musical forms, which are not bound to the timing or script of a film. They are afforded a musical freedom, as this upcoming program will reflect, that results in incredibly exciting concert works. Hearing these pieces will allow everyone to experience their immense talents and abilities as great American composers.”

For Symphony patrons, the “Hollywood” theme may seem vaguely familiar. In 2009, the festival celebrated the art of film music, past and present, by exploring the differences between composing for concerts and composing for film—and how the two styles have evolved into what we hear today. Considering that film music has been an integral part of Southern California culture since the inception of the movie industry and has had strong connections to the world of “classical” concert music, the festival was not only relevant but it also began a conversation that begs to be continued.

John WilliamsPlanning for ACF 2014 began in 2012, when Guerin approached Maestro St.Clair and Pacific Symphony about what he considered a “radical notion”—that the real orchestral legacy of Southern California was the great scores for Hollywood films and the composers who wrote them. He then proposed a selection of top-notch composers, principally known for film, as a viable way to celebrate the orchestra’s American Composers Festival.

“The tradition of Hollywood composers has been that of an artistic cast-off since the first generation of Golden Age composers fled the Nazis and found (fortunately) gainful employment in the flourishing industry of Hollywood films,” says Guerin. “This was largely due to the rise of German Academicism, dodecaphonic music, serial music and the strangle-hold by their practitioners over the definition of what modern music was supposed to be.” Guerin adds that the battle over ‘what is art’ in the Western world’s universities and symphony societies raged for decades and drove untold numbers of music lovers out of concert halls many years.

Film Score“Before the Second World War most American orchestras had no issue with composers who composed for films,” he continues. “After the war, a certain kind of rabid idealism took hold that drew a clear line between what was artistic and what was commercial. Nothing commercial could be considered serious art and echoes of such attitudes still exist today. Yet, after all, everyone from Britten to Copland to Shostakovich and Prokofiev composed for many films and their names remained unsullied by their interaction with film studios.” Guerin is compelled to ask: Why?

By example, Guerin points out that in the 1940s, one could attend a New York Philharmonic concert and hear Bernard Herrmann’s (“Psycho,” “Vertigo”) Symphony No.1 or his “Moby Dick” cantata (under Barbirolli) or the latest orchestral work by Korngold. And the evening that Leonard Bernstein had his big splash by filling in for an indisposed Bruno Walter, there was a new concert piece by Miklós Rózsa (“Spellbound,” “Ben Hur”) on the program.

“None of these composers was touched again for the next 50 years,” says Guerin. “To this day, hefty prejudice is levied against composers who are known as film composers. Bernard Herrmann always asserted that there was no such thing as a ‘film composer’ or ‘opera composer,’ there are only composers, period.”

National Endowment of the Arts