Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Magic of Christmas, at Cadogan Hall (Sun 4 Dec 2011)

It has been another busy year for Debbie Wiseman, what with Channel Four’s The Promise, a third series of Land Girls, not to mention a top ten album in the shape of ‘Piano Stories’. My part in the latter has certainly made 2011 a year to remember; it’s always such a pleasure to work with Debbie, so when she called early in the Summer to ask if I’d put some programme notes and a script together for ‘The Magic of Christmas’ at Cadogan Hall, I of course said yes.

The concert, in aid of the brilliant Breast Cancer Campaign, was a sequel of sorts to ‘The Pink Ribbon Gala’ which Debbie presided over in November 2009. Once again Cadogan Hall and the RPO played host to Debbie, who called in support from wonderfully talented artists, and friends, to make music, a little magic and raise vital funds for a very worthy cause.

Smooth Radio’s Simon Bates brought his legendary voice and easy charm to the proceedings, introducing the afternoon’s festive programme. Magic and Sparkle was the order of the day, with Leroy Anderson’s ‘Sleigh Ride’ the perfect opening, followed by the likes of selections from Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ – including the twinkling ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, somehow so suited to the season.

Stories really were the order of the day though and the audience was urged to step back into their childhoods, snuggle down in their seats and listen intently. The first half was dominated then by Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant’, which was read by Cheri Lunghi. It was a captivating performance, helped along beautifully by Debbie’s own original music. The tears of the lady in the row behind me said it all, not to mention the reaction of one small child half way through which put the orchestra of its stroke somewhat…

With part two came another fine actor, Robert Powell, who delivered the deliciously grizzly poem ‘Jim’ by Hilaire Beloc. The poem, about a little boy who leaves his nanny’s care only to be gobbled up by a Lion, was given suitably plucky accompaniment by Debbie and RPO, who performed Benjamin Britten’s ‘Playful Pizzicato’ beneath Powell’s perfectly pitched delivery.

The afternoon also saw a couple of firsts. Debbie herself made her Cadogan Hall debut as a soloist performing a solo piano piece. ‘Isolation’, written for the film The Hide, is the opening track of the ‘Piano Stories’ album and made a great opening to the second half. Though hidden away over to the right of the stage, the pianist’s debut went off really rather well and the piece itself never fails to cast a spell.

Perhaps even more spellbinding was the second ‘premiere’, George Layton’s ‘The Fib’. The story itself is one I remember from school – indeed it cemented my own fear of the football that was to come in ‘big school’ – and it’s a real treasure. Wearing both his actor and writer hats, George himself read to us his tale about a young lad whose embarrassment at a hand-me-down football kit leads to a cracker of a playground fib. George delivered his prose with warmth and humour and Debbie Wiseman and the RPO underscored with an arrangement of music by the composer, largely made up of selections from her score for Tom’s Midnight Garden. It was a good fit and the highlight of the afternoon, made even more special for everyone concerned as the story’s hero, Bobby Charlton, was in the audience. Now ‘Sir’ Bobby, the legendary footballer travelled down from Manchester especially and made it onto the stage to thank George and Debbie and say a few words. Magical.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a song or two and providing the necessary vocals was the velvet-voiced James Loynes, who is certainly one to watch. ‘Nothing Grows on Gold’, an original song by Debbie Wiseman and Don Black, was premiered at ‘The Pink Ribbon Gala’ in 2009 and is a real winner. Don himself flew in from New York to be at the event and hear his song; it would certainly have been worth it as James truly did them proud.

Rounding off the generous concert was the quintessential Christmas song, Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’. James Loynes did the honours once again, helped along (I think) by the audience; a fittingly festive and uplifting end to a very successful event.

I was honoured to be able to play a small part in ‘The Magic of Christmas’ and Debbie and Friends can rest in the knowledge that they pulled off a cracker of a show and through ticket sales, book and CD sales on the day, added much needed funds to Breast Cancer Campaign’s piggy bank.

The concert was the icing on the cake this year for Debbie Wiseman, though there’s more to come. The cherry on top? Lost Christmas, which premieres on BBC One on Christmas Eve… Don’t miss it!

If you’d like to know more about Breast Cancer Campaign go to breastcancercampaign.org

Debbie Wiseman’s Piano Stories is available on CD, or to Download, now courtesy of Warner Classics. Go to Amazon.co.uk for more information!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

On the Desk: Let's hear it for the girls...

This week I’m all about the girls (first time for everything I suppose…) and the pile of albums on my desk features a selection of strong women, both characters and composers, who are worth a mention.

Firstly, and admirably doing their bit for the War effort, are the Land Girls. The BBC’s Sunday teatime drama is just the perfect accompaniment to that time on that day. Warm, cosy, lightly dramatic, slightly comic and with a dollop of romance that makes it too hard to resist. With a third series in the works, it’s obvious it’s going down well and is just the sort of thing the BBC should be making time – and saving money – for. The BBC have teamed up with Rhino Records to release a pleasing soundtrack selection that takes in many of the period classics that litter the show’s own soundscape, alongside Debbie Wiseman’s heartwarming original scores. Packaged in an attractive, though possibly pointless, cardboard sleeve, the album is a little treasure trove of 1940s hits. Glenn Miller’s ‘In The Mood’ is a must-have in such a collection and the likes of Vera Lynn’s ‘It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow’ seal the deal. Throughout the disc we’re treated to cuts by The Geoff Pearce Little Big Band,Benny Goodman & His Orchestra, The Andrews Sisters, The Syd Lawrence Orchestra and the wonderful Connie Carter. The Chelsea Pensioners offer a Military Medley, while The Soldiers open the selection with Debbie Wiseman’s own title song ‘While We’re Away’ (written with Don Black no less). Debbie’s original music peppers the period tunes and the selections of score rely heavily on her winning main theme – itself lilting, wistful and suitably misty-eyed. Obviously I’m always up for plenty more Debbie Wiseman on a soundtrack album, but this package is very fitting and nice product that captures the feel and energy of the much-loved drama.

Debbie’s theme from Land Girls also features on ‘Piano Stories’, the composer’s new solo piano album which hits the shops tomorrow (Monday 19 September)! Now while I may have had more than a little to do with its inception, I can’t tell you enough just how wonderful the album is. The piano has featured prominently throughout Debbie’s scores for film and television and it is the instrument she turns to for inspiration when she’s composing. With that in mind the music selected for ‘Piano Stories’ is Debbie Wiseman’s music as it was originally conceived – just on piano. Something of a look over her shoulder, it features new recordings of themes from Wilde, The Upper Hand, Children’s Hospital, Haunted, Tom & Viv, Lesbian Vampire Killers, Stephen Fry in America and Joanna Lumley’s Nile. It also features a couple of exclusives, including her soulful, spine-tingling theme from The Hide and the plaintively evocative theme from The Throne. There’s even more than that – indeed we were quite generous! – so much so if you go to iTunes there are even a couple of bonus tracks not on the CD. It’s a beautiful document of a career and a personality in music; I can guarantee you won’t regret buying it… Promise.

From rural England to Ancient China now and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Wayne Wang’s film of Lisa See’s novel about two girls who form a deep bond and create a unique way of communicating at a time when women were to be seen and not heard. The film looks gorgeous and its score, by Rachel Portman, is characteristically gossamer and pleasing to the ear. It feels as if Rachel has been quiet of late, so its great to have a major score release in this not unfamiliar vain. Twinkling, tinkling piano and fluttering orchestral shades are the order of the day here, together bringing about a quiet sense of beauty and sumptuous colour. I do enjoy Rachel Portman’s music – indeed her ‘Soundtracks’ compilation album features regularly on my playlist at home and while she isn’t perhaps the most inventive of composers these days, her trusted palette continues to captivate with its delightful turns of phrase and emotive undercurrents.

Jane Eyre is the target of yet another big screen adaptation this month as Cary Fukunaga’s vision of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel hits multiplexes in the UK. Dario Marienelli joins the ranks of Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Claudio Capponi, to underscore this latest outing and does so with stunning effect. With his score for Pride & Prejudice in mind, Dario is perhaps the perfect choice to score Jane Eyre and he yet again creates a score full of scintillating romance, passion and high drama. The piano features of course here, but takes something of a back seat to the violin which forms the beating heart of the work. Jack Liebeck provides the performance here and it’s a match made in heaven as the young virtuoso breathes a fiery elegance into the gorgeous lines gifted to him by the composer. I’m a sucker for a great violin score and the union of the brilliant Liebeck with the talented Marianelli means Jane Eyre is up there with the likes of The Red Violin, Schindler’s List, Cinema Paradiso and Ladies in Lavender. Liebeck is himself no stranger to film scoring having provided intense and exciting playing on Debbie Wiseman’s Middletown back in 2006 (as well as her popular Oscar Wilde Fairy Tales album before that). Jane Eyre though is a triumph and a favourite score of the year so far for me personally; surely another Oscar nomination is in the bag for Dario…

The violin takes centre stage on Tadlow Music’s latest album, which puts the spotlight on the talented young woman behind pretty much all of the violin solos you will have heard on City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra recordings in recent years. ‘Lucie Švehlová: The Lark Ascending’ finds the leader of the CPPO headline for the first time in a collection of ‘Classical and Film Music Violin Romances’. Two of the scores I mentioned above feature here, with John Williams’ Schindler’s List taking dominating the middle section with three selections (the two obvious ones, alongside the always-hair-raising ‘Jewish Town’). Nigel Hess’ Ladies in Lavender never fails to uplift and Lucie carries it beautifully, while the likes of Rozsa’s gorgeous ‘Gabrielle’ from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and his love theme from El Cid complete the well known film titles. Andre Previn’s ‘Romance’ from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a surprising, but not unwelcome addition, when you consider all the other great violin pieces that could have been included. An original composition by Nic Raine called ‘Renacuajo’ is another surprise, but why not, and the classical staples ‘The Lark Ascending’ and ‘Greensleeves’ complete the set on a legitimate note. The latter is actually arranged as a ‘Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra’ (by Paul Hart) and is a premiere recording… Great stuff and lovely playing, as ever, from Lucie – the darling of the City of Prague Phil…

Finally we look to Miss Red Riding Hood, the cover star of The Weinstein Company’s Hoodwinked Too! Hood Vs. Evil. While the first film tried and failed to equal the popularity of DreamWorks’ Shrek canon, that didn’t stop the producers whipping out a second colourful instalment. The fact that it was shelved for a year or two shouldn’t put you off – ours is not to reason why the wherefores of the Hollywood legal system. For me it was a real shame because I’d known all along that the brilliant and insanely talented Murray Gold had done the music. Not content with supplying hundreds of minutes of sparkling, rambunctious and powerfully emotional music for the BBC’s Doctor Who, the British-born-now-based-in-the-US composer is doing wonderful things for other shows, dramas and – here – big, glossy animated features! Hoodwinked finds Murray pretty much going all out create the feistiest, flashiest collection of cues you could ask for in a fast-paced, hopefully-laugh-a-minute comedy. Mickey-mousing this may be (in part) but with team Who doing the biz, it’s anything but paint-by-numbers. Madcap, heroic, sometimes beautiful, it’s everything Doctor Who is celebrated for, but with a few extra whams and whizzes to keep you on your toes. The score is as smart as it is fun and quite honestly exhausting if you’re not in the mood. But what a piece of work it is… He came, he scored… he outdid himself frankly.

Piano Stories, released on Warner Classics, is available from 19 September from Amazon.co.uk, with Rhino’s Land Girls, Sony’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Jane Eyre, not to mention Lakeshore’s Hoodwinked Too! already on sale. Tadlow’s lovely violin disc can be ordered from Silvascreenmusic.com…

Thanks to Sony Music, Tadlow Music, Warner Classics, Debbie Wiseman and Murray Gold.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Hooray for Hollywood: John Wilson does it again..

I’m literally still buzzing... What a night! John Wilson has become one of the BBC Proms’ most popular participants, recreating the magic of music from a bygone age before our ears. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend each of the young conductor’s triumphant turns on the podium at the Albert Hall – beginning with ‘The British Film Music Prom’ in 2007. The ‘Hooray for Hollywood Prom’ was unsurprisingly a sell-out, much like last year’s glorious ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein Prom’ and the one that started the buzz, ‘The MGM Film Musicals Prom’ in 2009...

The conductor/arranger’s hand-picked band – The John Wilson Orchestra - features some of Europe’s top front bench orchestral musicians and together they breathed life into a selection of music that remains truly Golden.
One thing that always strikes me about these shows is the love that so obviously goes into them; John is passionate about this music and in bringing in the talent he does, he makes sure it’s delivered in note perfect form. The only other way to experience this particular music in this way would be to physically go back in time and sit in the Hollywood scoring stages of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.
Quite an era to take in, but one which saw the rise and demise of the golden age of the motion picture musical, from 42nd Street to Hello Dolly. With MGM Musicals previously covered in their own right and the work of Rodgers & Hammerstein duly noted, this Prom allowed a wider reach in terms of the variety of the material and took in music from studios like RKO, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox and of course MGM. The all-encompassing ‘Overture’ took in music from many of the film titles referenced throughout the following programme and it was enough to fill any heart with pure joy as the orchestra bounced their way through the selection, assembled by Wilson. What a fine achievement it was, and that was just the first piece!
Split into a further nine sections, the programme took us through history, beginning in the early glory days of Warner Bros. and the aforementioned 42nd Street, released in 1933 – about the same time as the birth of film music itself – and moving through the thirties song and dance classics of Fred & Ginger and the heady forties, when the movie musical was an escapist shot in the arm and much needed boost during the war years. From there we witnessed ‘Fred’s Swansong’ and ‘Judy’s Comeback’ with the likes of music from Ziegfeld Follies and A Star is Born, before moving into later classics like Gypsy, West Side Story and Guys and Dolls. The final curtain for the genres glittering golden age came in the form of films like Disney’s Mary Poppins, Fox’s Doctor Dolittle and the final bow that was Hello Dolly.
These musical numbers of course needed voice and the John Wilson Orchestra were not left without. The Maida Vale Singers lent fine vocal support, adding some emotional and uplifting weight to the likes of ‘Strike Up The Band’ and the searingly emotive ‘Serenade’ from The Student Prince. The lead vocal came from tenor Charles Castronovo, whose passionate performance was quite literally heart stopping. He was just one of six vocal soloists to join in the fun, and the likes of soprano Sarah Fox, tenor Matthew Ford and Annalene Beechey were in fine voice throughout. It was, however the efforts of Caroline O’Connor and Clare Teal that shone through. O’Connor is perhaps most recognised as Nini Legs in the Air in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! but she is also a much-lauded star of the stage in her native Australia and has performed regularly in London’s West End and on Broadway. Perfectly cast in the Judy Garland role for the set from A Star is Born, O’Connor was simply outstanding – not surprising given she starred as Garland in the world premiere of the hit show End of the Rainbow. She truly is a little firecracker of a performer and her various turns – notably ‘Strike Up The Band’, ‘Gotta Have Me Go With You’ and ‘Triplets’ – were exacted with a confidence, prowess and zeal lacking in some of the others. That latter song, from MGM’s The Band Wagon (1953) saw her joined by Ford and Fox, each of them bedecked in romper suits, hats and clutching teddybears... A comic highlight for sure.
Clare Teal brought with her the delightfully infectious personality and crystal clear jazz vocals that have made her a star. She absolutely nailed the likes of ‘You’ll Never Know’ (from Fox’s Four Jills in a Jeep) and ‘Secret Love’ (from Warner Bros. Calamity Jane). Constantly smiling and quite noticeably just having a wonderful time, Teal’s natural warmth and good humour was a perfect fit for this show.
Rounding off the endlessly entertaining concert was ‘Put On Your Sunday Clothes’ from Fox’s Hello Dolly. With all the vocalists, choir and orchestra united it served to raise not just smiles across the auditorium, but hairs on the back of our necks too. The encore of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Buisness’ saw a final belting turn from O’Connor, who took on the Ethel Merman persona with ease (again a character she has played before, this time on film in De Lovely). Though we stamped our feet and clapped our hands until they were raw, Wilson and Co. were understandably tired and after a third walk to the front of the stage they disappeared from view. Not from our memory though, as this show will live on for a long time; such was the impact and generous spirit of those involved. Congratulations to John Wilson once again for making such magic, and with the colourful, heart-warming rendition of ‘Jolly Holiday’ from Mary Poppins in mind, perhaps next year he might consider taking us back to the Golden Age of Disney? Pretty please?

With thanks to BBC Proms, Rosanna Chianta, John Wilson and The Royal Albert Hall. You can watch The Hooray for Hollywood Prom on BBC 2 at 21:15GMT on Saturday 3 September. Tune in, you won’t regret it... If you can’t wait, then why not LISTEN to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast on BBC iPlayerclick here

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A Night at the Movies... At The Proms: The Film Music Prom - Fri 12 Aug 2011

Never presume a concert is going to start at 7.30pm... Lesson learned. I didn’t actually miss any of Friday’s Film Music Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, but I did unwittingly sit in my seat just five minutes before conductor Keith Lockhart struck up the band.


The band in question was of course the always-wonderful and dexterous BBC Concert Orchestra, who launched full pelt into Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Prelude’ from The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was a fine start to an all too brief tribute to the composer, who of course would have been 100 this year, and with the film’s finale location in mind – not to mention Herrmann’s cameo on that very stage – it was all rather delicious. The exuberant ‘Overture’ from Citizen Kane went down well, as it always does, before Lockhart and Co. delivered Herrmann’s engrossing ‘Narrative’ of Psycho. Lovely to have a Herrmann presence at the Proms, however fleeting. The Moby Dick Cantata next year perhaps?


Chloe Hanslip was warmly received for her first half performance of Morricone’s oh-so-captivating theme from Cinema Paradiso. What an achievement that score is... So beautiful; and in the hands of the talented Hanslip it really did soar around that vast space and into our souls.
William Walton’s Henry V is highly revered, and rightly so. The lengthy ‘Suite’ presented at the Prom, rounding off the first half was perhaps a bridge too far for some. While the music rang out, jewel-like, intense and buoyant, it was interspersed with a live recital of parts from Shakespeare’s play by actor Rory Kinnear. This is no slight on Mr Kinnear’s talent, indeed it was a great performance of a selection of speeches; but for the uninitiated and – in my case – the unprepared, it was just a bit long. Minds wandered to the interval drink, the upcoming James Bond suite, or whether the Celeste player would nail the parts in Harry Potter... Still, a noble job and ably done.


Part two saw the ensemble bring out the big guns, opening with a selection of pieces by John Williams. Not a massive surprise for a seasoned film music concertgoer, but wonderful to hear the likes of Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Schindler’s List at the Proms. The fanfares of the former rang out and tingled spines, while Potter’s dizzying spectacle, replete with perfect Celeste I might add, was suitably magic. Chloe Hanslip returned to take on Schindler’s List and proved yet again what a talent she is. The piece never fails to haunt and uplift in equal measure.


Jonny Greenwood is a talented chap isn’t he? I was so impressed by his score for There Will Be Blood and I couldn’t wait to hear his ‘Suite’ from Norwegian Woods at the Prom. I wasn’t disappointed. The orchestra was put through its paces to deliver some hair-raising avant garde devices, led by a simple repeated motif in the strings which finds itself bleeding out into the rest of the orchestra. Riveting is probably the best word to describe this music. I always imagine that for a ‘rock star’ composer, being given an orchestra to play with is just like having the most exciting toy in the world; hearing what Greenwood came up with cemented that thought. Very effective and a lot of fun.


Sir Richard Rodney Bennett celebrates his 75th birthday this year. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years ago and he really is a proper gentleman. While his birthday has been noted by a whole Prom this season, the Film Music Prom wouldn’t have been right without a tip of the hat to him and his music. Murder on the Orient Express is probably one of his highest profile film scores and the selection of cues performed at the concert were just fantastic. It made me wonder why I haven’t sought out more of RRB’s stuff. Murder is just such a thrill; a bit camp, lavish and colourful with a period hue. It reminded me of a story about Bernard Herrmann, who at the time said RRB had got it all wrong “What was he thinking?!” he said “This is supposed to be a train of death...”. Classic. It’s true to say the venerable British composer didn’t go down a dark route for the killer thriller, but his tongue in cheek, romping and melodic music is some of his best and the concert performance was a standout of the evening, truly.

Finishing things off, and in tribute to the late John Barry, was a lovingly performed Out of Africa and a barnstorming suite of music from a variety of James Bond films. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Goldfinger and ‘The James Bond Theme’ were arranged together and played with bags of panache and enthusiasm. The twirling cellos in David Arnold’s ‘You Know My Name’ were a great touch and said much for the overall concert. Keith Lockhart is a real showman and he brought a great energy, wit and enthusiasm to the evening.

Up next? The Hooray for Hollywood Prom on 29 August! John Wilson and his fine orchestra whisk us back to Hollywood's Golden Age again, hot on the heels of the MGM Film Musicals Prom in 2009 and last year's glorious Rodgers & Hammerstein Prom. I can't wait! Full report coming soon...






With thanks to BBC Proms and Royal Albert Hall

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Oh it's that man off the telly...

Films have been a source of inspiration to many music artists, so much so it may be something of a cliché for a solo classical musician to take on such a programme for an album release… Did I say that out loud?

Don’t get me wrong, I do think it’s actually a sometimes successful way of bridging the chasm that exists critically between ‘real’ classical music and that funny stuff we call ‘film music’. I think what makes Rolando Villazón’s new CD ‘La Strada: Songs from the Movies’ most grating is the horrible sticker featuring an ITV1 logo and the words ‘As featured on Popstar to Operastar’ *shudder*

Yes, Rolando is the bouffant-haired, Catapillar-browed Tenor who is – sadly – most recognised by the man on the street as ‘that bloke who critiques ‘celebrities’ trying to sing opera on the telly’. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not a fan of the programme… Drivel is not the word.

With that feeling in mind it’s really no wonder I gulped slightly when I was informed I could expect a copy of Villazón’s album. Joy, I thought.

The first surprise for me was that it was not a typical glossy ‘Decca Records’ tie-in release; in fact the disc is released by Decca’s serious Classical arm ‘Deutsche Grammophon’. The second came with the sight of the rather large set of media quotes on the back cover, including the one from Opera News that Villazón is in fact ‘the most talked about and sought after lyric tenor in the world’. Gosh. Thirdly I gave the disc a couple of spins and yes, you guessed it, he’s really rather good, though the selection is questionable including a few howlers.

Somehow the non-English language tracks work best with the Tenor’s broad Italian brogue in mind, so the likes of ‘Al otro lado del rio’ from The Motorcycle Diaries, ‘Gelsomina’ from La Strada and ‘Non, je ne regretted rien’ from La Vie en rose are particular highlights. The Michel Legrand standards ‘A Piece of Sky’ (from Yentl), ‘The Windmills of Your Mind’ (from The Thomas Crown Affair) and ‘The Summer Knows’ (from Summer of ’42) go some way to heal the accent issues, but mainly because the songs are just so damned good.

The howlers? ‘She’ from Notting Hill just doesn’t work, sadly, and is more than irritating, while the kiddy-friendly ditties ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ (from Pinocchio) and ‘Rainbow Connection’ (from The Muppet Movie… yes The Muppet Movie) are very sweet, but a little too sweet for my liking; making for something of a cheeseboard of an album when all is said and done.

So, peaks and troughs then really and somewhat jarring considering how seriously it is presented by the label.

A noble concept at bringing the talented singer a wider audience, but I do think he should probably stick to what he does best.

Summer heroes...

With July ebbing away and August cresting just beyond the weekend I can’t believe that I haven’t had chance to sit down and take stock of some of the big blockbuster soundtrack albums of 2011. Obviously summer is by no means over and there is the promise of brilliance to come in the shape of Michael Giacchino’s Super 8 and Alan Silvestri’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Having heard a teeny-weeny preview of both efforts I can confirm that I am excited beyond reason. More on those when they grace my ears fully…

In the meantime I have had a chance to process some of Sony Classical’s offerings; a trio in fact taking in both superheroes and wizards. Yes, I’m talking Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II of course, and preceding that X-Men: First Class and The Green Lantern.

Henry Jackman was responsible for Matthew Vaughn’s fitting prequel to Fox’s X-Men trilogy. I was impressed by Jackman’s exuberant accompaniment to Gullivers Travels and when I saw he’d taken on First Class I wasn’t too worried. His music is robust enough, performed by some of Hollywood’s best and delivering suitable doses of thrust, action and drama. Ubiquitous electric guitars and drums throb and bang away, but not incessantly and the brass really rocks. Jackman knows how to tick all the boxes and I appreciate his old-school approach; the orchestra is largely at the forefront with the rumbles, hums and trickery present but playing a supporting role.

The same cannot be said for James Newton Howard’s The Green Lantern, which the weighty Hollywood Studio Symphony who are sadly lost beneath a barrage of drum and bass patches and rock guitar. Maybe I shouldn’t say sadly… After all this is a glossy, youthful, high action, effects-laden picture and such things attract scores in the mould I speak of. It does seem a shame to use an orchestra of this calibre though, credit them with a whole page in the booklet and yet drown them out. I expect it took a lot of work… but it isn’t particularly memorable, unlike JNH’s wonderful Water for Elephants. You couldn’t get more of a Jekyll & Hyde musical scenario frankly… That latter effort is a luscious, melodic, glistening treat and Green Lantern much like the composer’s Green Hornet will likely remain on the shelf and not listened to again. I guess it comes down to a matter of taste; maybe I’m just getting old (heck I’m not even thirty!)

My blockbuster Sony Classical trilogy is completed by the boy wizard, Alexandre Desplat. Ha. He is something of a wizard though isn’t he? I mean he must be the most prolific composer on the beat right now, other than Giacchino. His star has risen and risen since Girl With a Pearl Earring impressed and after taking on The Golden Compass a few years back, he proved he could flex his blockbuster muscle (even if the film didn’t bust any blocks). Taking the reigns from Nicholas Hooper, Desplat joined a small band of composers who have given musical life to Harry Potter and ably supported final chapters of the franchise with his orchestra of choice, The London Symphony Orchestra.

So a score of two halves then, written and recorded separately but together forming a whole. Let’s get something straight, I would have loved John Williams to have returned for The Deathly Hallows but he didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t… whatever. I am however pleased that a composer of Desplat’s skill, artistry and dexterity was hired. Am I happy with the end result? Well the jury’s still out I’m afraid. There are moments of beauty here, moments of drama and some excitement. I think Part II pales a little compared to Part I, which is strange when you think that the second part ought to be more action-packed. Scoring a second half of something you’ve already started must be a little tricky too, after all Desplat was able to set out his stall in Part I and I think he did a fine job. In Part II he really has to just keep some momentum and pick up the pieces and end the thing.

I’ve listened to Part II a handful of times now and I’m still trying to think of a track I would go back to and listen to on its own because it’s a standout. ‘Lily’s Theme’ is haunting yes, continuing the vocal line he began in Part I. There are no great swathes of orchestral power though, no mighty chorus singing out in jubilation or terror. ‘Voldemort’s End’ is little more than a wailing woman when it should surely be a legion of voices uniting to bring the bastard down. To be frank there is no momentum, which is vital to such a film.

A friend of mine made a good point… Maybe it’s the director’s fault? Now, David Yates has taken on four of these films and brought them in admirably, completing for Warner Bros. what was becoming a director of the week affair. Having one director isn’t a bad thing at all, but it does seem this particular director doesn’t have particularly grand views about the role of music in his films. With that in mind can we blame Nicholas Hooper for delivering a pair of, let’s face it, unchallenging, largely unmemorable (save for 'Fireworks' and 'Professor Umbridge'), by-the-numbers scores. Desplat does have a stronger voice than Hooper and what he has crafted for Potter is full of pathos, mystery, brevity and some scintillation, but when the most exciting smile-inducing moments are courtesy of John Williams, there has to be something wrong?









I'm all about Herrmann right now...

Goodness where has the time gone? It’s almost August and I haven’t written a blog for some time. I blame Bernard Herrmann entirely. You see, Mr Herrmann would have been 100 years old on 29 June and with that in mind there has been a flurry of concerts and events taking place to mark the grand occasion. Not least of all a fantastic month long film season at Bristol’s Watershed Media Centre, with whom I worked a little on beefing up their fine festival micro-site -www.watershed.co.uk/herrmann

It seemed all I did throughout May and June was live, breathe and muse on the life and music of Bernard Herrmann, which isn’t a bad thing I suppose. My iPod was – and still is – chock full of the best of Benny. I went to the RPO’s brilliant Film Music Gala, which had a special tribute to BH (that was in fact my last blog entry) and later that month I penned some programme notes for a very special concert at St George’s Bristol, where the Tippett Quartet showcased Herrmann’s captivating ‘Echoes’ String Quartet, alongside a specially commissioned Quartet suite from Psycho. Making the event even more special was the presence of Mrs Norma Herrmann. Having Norma present really added a seal of approval to the concert (a highlight of the Watershed’s festival). I spoke with her a little and she delighted in sharing stories of her time with Benny… ‘He was a terrible pianist…’ being just one of the engrossing anecdotes she came out with.

The event itself was a fine launch as well for my campaign ‘A Blue Plaque for Bernard Herrmann’. Concertgoers at St George’s, Norma Herrmann and the Tippett Quartet themselves were some of the first names to be added in support of having an English Heritage Blue Plaque erected at one of Herrmann’s former London homes.

I’m a couple of weeks away from finally submitting the application document – which I’m assembling with fine assistance from Bernard Herrmann Society scribe Gunether Kogebehn – which will be supported by the petition of names. The list of supporters is still growing and I’m overwhelmed and chuffed to pieces that so many people have gotten in touch to lend their names. This week alone has seen an abundance of support from across the Atlantic with Intrada Records, La La La Land Records, Perseverance Records and Film Score Monthly all adding their stamp to the list. They join the likes of Mark Isham, Debbie Wiseman, Christopher Gunning, Conrad Pope, John Williams, the RPO, the LSO and the Halle Orchestra who have all expressed their support so far. Those are just the big names and there are of course many many of Herrmann’s fans across the world and I thank each and every one of them for supporting the campaign too.

If you’d like to add your name in support then email me now – michael@michaelbeek.co.uk and I’ll add you to the petition. If you’d like more information on the campaign then take a look at my original article here on the Watershed’s Herrmann micro-site: http://www.watershed.co.uk/herrmann/blue-plaque.html

Friday, 3 June 2011

Film Music Gala 2011

A month later than usual and a change of title didn’t stop the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from laying on another delectable feast of fine film music classics. Their annual film music concert, now known as 'Film Music Gala', is always a popular event, featuring performances of some of the best in blockbusting film music and a sprinkling of new treats.

The packed house at the Royal Albert Hall were in fine mood – possibly thanks to the balmy weather outside – and that mood was lifted further with the RPO’s characteristically sturdy renditions of main themes from Gladiator, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Mission: Impossible, Out of Africa, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Star Wars.

Those crowd-pleasers aside – though Clio Gould’s performance of Williams’ Schindler’s List was top-notch, not to mention the always hair-raising Jurassic Park – the highlights for me came from other programme selections…

It is of course Bernard Herrmann’s centenary year, indeed his big 100 is on 29 June, and as such film and film music fans are being treated to all kinds of tributes and celebrations the world over. Last night was no exception as the RPO performed music from four of the esteemed composer’s greatest film scores; his first, Citizen Kane; his last, Taxi Driver and his two biggest Hitchcock classics: Vertigo and Psycho. Hearing Herrmann’s music live is always a thrill for me and as always the selection from Taxi Driver raised hairs and blood-pressure with its violent throws and delicious Saxophone lines. Psycho was afforded the usual giggles when it came to ‘The Murder’, not least of all because conductor Paul Bateman, baton clenched in his fist, ‘stabbed’ the orchestra through the cue… inspired. The tribute to Herrmann was made all the more special by the presence of his widow Norma, who waved and gave a hearty thumbs-up from her seat in the stalls.

The event is always blessed with special guest conductors and this year was no exception as in the first half we were treated to two suites of music by the great John Scott, who was on hand to direct the orchestra. On paper the selections may not have inspired too much excitement from the layman, but the performances of music from Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and The Final Countdown proved to be some of the biggest and most exciting of the entire evening. It was a special moment for Bristol-born Scott who recorded the latter score with the orchestra at CTS-Wembley back in 1980, so it was something of a reunion and the band did him proud. When briefly interviewed by presenter Tommy Pearson about his music and the influence of Bernard Herrmann on composers in general, Scott was enthusiastic and went on to make something of a faux-pas as he exclaimed he was always impressed and blown away by Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock’s Rope… The film was of course some seven years before Herrmann and Hitchcock first worked together (on The Trouble With Harry) and what little music was in the film was by the uncredited David Buttolph. Of course only a complete film music nut and Herrmann aficionado like myself would croak and sputter at such a mistake and it likely went over the heads of the majority of the gathered mass.

Part Two saw the RPO joined by one of its very special friends and ‘Film Music Gala’ regular, Debbie Wiseman. Debbie is a popular figure at the event and she always has something new up her sleeve (whether she has any or not, in this case it was a sleeveless, off the shoulder number) and for her 2011 stint she brought with her a new concert arrangement of her gloriously perky 1999 score for Tom’s Midnight Garden and the premiere of music from The Promise, which she scored this year for Peter Kosminsky and Channel 4. It goes without saying both pieces went down well, the latter fizzing with high drama…

So another RPO Film Music Frenzy (perhaps next year’s title?) ticked off the calendar and a highly enjoyable evening, as ever. It’s just smashing to see so many people beaming with delight as classics of the silver screen play out and not just us mere mortals. I spotted an Oscar-winner in the crowd, not to mention Christopher Gunning, and Hi De Hi's Su Pollard! It takes all sorts it seems.

Till next time!


With thanks to Doran Harding, Royal Albert Hall and Debbie Wiseman.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

On The Desk IX

You don’t get more classy than Holly Golightly, or more classic a film than Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Blake Edwards’ sassy, comically romantic and ultimately moving film created an icon in Audrey Hepburn and in the process confirmed that the director’s creative partnership with composer Henry Mancini would go on to be one of the most colourful and listenable in Hollywood history. The score for Tiffany’s came a few years before the quintessential Pink Panther scores and in a way put the composer more firmly on the Hollywood map, thanks in no small part to the title song ‘Moon River’ which Manicini composed with Johnny Mercer. Both won Oscars for their work on the swooning little number and the composer took home a second statue for his dramatic score.

I say ‘dramatic’, when really it’s more of a glittering, toe-tapping underscore representative of the period and most of it coming out of Holly’s record player. So the majority of the music on this new ‘50th Anniversary’ release of the music from the film, by Harkit Records, is source music, but what a fabulous selection of ditties it is. The real drama comes from the ‘Moon River’ melody which appears in the opening ‘Choral’ version and Hepburn’s vocal rendition – itself full of sultry emotion. The likes of ‘Something for Cat’ and ‘The Big Blow Out’ make perfect 60s party music – as they did in the film – and the quasi striptease music of ‘Hub Caps and Tail Lights’ raises a smile for sure.

The title track is a romantic, misty-eyed number with light percussion, cool piano and strings, not to mention the ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ choir. Mancini’s trademark swooping strings, brass vibraphone add a touch of 60s glamour. There’s something utterly wonderful about this style of music, so of its time, full of warmth, romance all played out with a wink and smile I expect.

‘Holly’ is another breezy walk in the park, with trumpet, percussion and guitar playing out a lazy melody. Those swooping strings again whisk you up off your feet and carry you away with them, while ‘The Big Heist’ pre-empts the mould that Mancini would turn to for The Pink Panther in a few years time… Priceless.

A final rendition or two of ‘Moon River’, including a very camp ‘Cha Cha’ version brings this glittering little album to a close. I can quite honestly say it’s a bit of a joy and it makes me want to seek out more music of this period… I’ve a load of Williams’ music from similar ‘screwball’ romances, comedies and alike, so I think I’ll dust them off. Time to re-embrace my copy of The Pink Panther as well I think… Kudos to Harkit Records though for making this music available; notes by Randall Larson are, as always, informative and expertly written, while the packaging – replete with faux crystals in the spine casing – is creatively considered.






Now to Silva’s release of Gustavo Santaolalla’s Biutiful, his latest collaboration with visionary director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Following on from the likes of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, Biutiful stars Javier Bardem as a dying man with a shady past who wishes to redeem himself before death claims him.

Music appears to be of great importance to Inarritu and like their previous films, Santaolalla was involved from an early stage. Indeed for Biutiful the composer researched the styles of music that might work and went so far as to record tracks before the film’s production was complete. According to the director, some 150 tracks were created, not all ending up in the finished film as you’d imagine. In fact some of the early ideas thought to be what they needed, ended up not working at all with the film and a whole different approach was undertaken. As a result the two discs of the soundtrack album represent both the original soundtrack of cues heard in the film, with the second disc (called ‘Almost Biutiful’) carrying a selection of the otherwise worthy pieces that didn’t make it. A nice touch.

The music then, like all of the Inarritu/Santaolalla productions is a diverse collection really, with the composer’s original music – as usual based on guitars and ethnic instrumentation. This composer looks to eastern and African music for some of his inspiration, as well as his latin roots. Some of the early selection isn’t easy listening, the cues being quite stark and imposing, contrasting greatly to later cues of some beauty. The finale of the first disc is a gorgeous rendering of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (aka 2 Adagio Assai) performed by Zoltan Kocsis, Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orhestra; truly ‘Biutiful’.

The second disc, with its ponderous pre-production musings intact offer again a variety of ideas. ‘Seedz’ has an overtly African flavour, while the likes of ‘Maler’ and ‘Davis’ are hypnotic and engaging, the former arranged by Osvaldo Golijov. ‘Tin Can Gitar’ is certainly the most unusual entry, with its oddly entrancing repetitive metallic sound, while ‘Elegaic’ – the closing track - is a piece for piano, reverberating and pensive.

Another Silva album to land on my desk in recent weeks was something of a surprise. ‘The Symphonic Celtic Album’ should probably be called ‘The Symphonic Celtic Film Music Album’ given that that is exactly what it is, bar one track… A gathering then of some of film’s quintessential Celtic musical motifs, some obvious, others spurious… It is though a pleasant listening experience, with Carter Burwell’s Miller’s Crossing opening the selection and Sean O’Riada’s ‘Women of Ireland’, used in Barry Lyndon, one of the truly Celtic offerings. The likes of Horner’s Braveheart and Titanic, Williams’ Far And Away and Burwell’s Rob Roy are the meat of the piece, while two selections from Shore’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring are given an Emerald glow thanks to the presence of Enya’s ‘May It Be’ in the first instance and the Celtic-flavour of the Hobbiton music I suppose.

I may be missing something, but Trevor Jones’ The Last of the Mohicans and Newman’s The Shawshank Redemption, are only faintly Celtic in their general hue, while the inclusion of ‘Now We Are Free’ from Gladiator is just filler surely… It was set in Rome, he was a ‘Spaniard’ and… need I go on? Anyway, it’s still a fine piece of music.

Victor Young’s The Quiet Man and Michael Kamen’s Highlander complete the package, though the likes of Jarre’s Ryan’s Daughter might have been a welcome addition, not to mention Horner’s The Devil’s Own. Obviously these things depend very much on what’s in the Silva catalogue to begin with and to be fair to them they haven’t done badly at all with this album. It’s all listenable stuff… Not sure I can forgive the glaring mistake in the sleeve note though, where Howard Shore is credited with Braveheart… Woops. Oh and the album ends with Bill Whelan’s ‘Riverdance’… not in a film, as far as I know? But it’s a cracking piece an anthem if you like to all things Celtic. And why not.









Finally James Horner’s Testament was a welcome release from Film Score Monthly recently and while it’s a short album – just a little over half an hour – it’s worth it. His take on the morbid, but dramatic family tale of life after a nuclear holocaust is quite simply moving and beautifully achieved. With a small ensemble, Horner weaves emotive lines of music for solo, duo and trio, including woodwinds and an imposing French horn. The brief vignettes on the album, plus a couple of pieces by Mozart make for a short but wholly satisfying experience, proving Horner’s ability to move with the simplest of means. This is a must have CD for any Horner collector.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is available from Harkit Records – www.harkitrecords.com – while both Biutiful and The Symphonic Celtic album are available on CD or to download from www.silvascreenmusic.com. Testament can be found at www.screenarchives.com, along with all the other fine releases from FSM and more besides. As ever.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

On The Desk VIII

Busy times in the real world have kept me from the desk, so it’s been a little while since my last blog. I think the last one was more of a rant actually… Apologies for that. So back to it, refreshed-ish and a pile of albums amassing atop the table. But where to begin? I might begin with a little self promotion as Silva Screen’s wonderful ‘Francis Lai: The Essential Film Music Collection’ is with us at last. What sets this release apart from their traditional ‘Essential’ series entries is that this selection is conducted by the composer himself with his orchestra. So something of a seal of approval from a composer who is oft-overlooked. The album is a re-issue of a Japanese release and with liner notes by yours truly it’s a neat little package that gathers together the best of Lai’s entrancing and unendingly charming music. Silva have been busy of late what with their latest Debbie Wiseman release The Promise (a typically emotive and thought-provoking piece of work from the First Lady of Film Music, with cracking cover-art) and more besides. Not least of all yet another release from the pen of Mr. Murray Gold for Doctor Who The 2010 Christmas Special - 'A Christmas Carol' - saw Welsh wonder Katherine Jenkins take on her first acting role, so it was a given that she’d end up singing at some point. Murray crafted ‘Abigail’s Song’ for her and it is of course the standout track of the album - the first entire episode soundtrack to be released after four albums of Series highlights. With additional vocal accompaniment from the usual bods of The Crouch End Festival Chorus, the song – although cunningly simplistic – manages to raise the hairs on the back of your neck when Jenkins and the Chorus are in full force. The larger score is essentially what we’ve come to expect, love – nay crave – from the Time Lord’s adventures. With that in mind this is nothing short of a musical spectacular, a full throttle orchestral score with bags of charm, moments of magic and a few punchy little numbers along the way. With Series 6 not far away, appetites are certainly whetted… more to come of course, not least of all the release on CD of Murray’s utterly brilliant score for the Weinstein Company’s animated sequel Hoodwinked Too. The soundtrack is coming – finally – from Lakeshore Records in the US, so perhaps Silva will be able to pick it up here? Here’s hoping, it’s tops. Another BBC series that has gotten people all fired up in the UK is Being Human. I was certainly in on the ground floor when Series 1 aired in 2009 and have been hooked ever since. The premise is fairly straightforward… a Ghost, a Vampire and a Werewolf live together in contemporary Britain, trying to fit in and live as human a life as possible. While its obvious overtones of fantasy, horror and indeed comedy were duly noted, I was surprised at just how damned moving the ongoing series’ have been. Series 3 has just finished here and what a series that was… Just brilliant. The music for the show is composed by Richard Wells, who until then was known to me thanks to his rather good score for The Mutant Chronicles. For Being Human Wells applies smaller scale music, often solo instrumentalists/groups amongst a wealth of well conceived programming. That said the music seemed to me to play quite a back seat as nothing particularly memorable ever stayed with me, bar the metallic/percussive end credits piece. This does of course mean the music is doing its job… With that in mind though I was intrigued to discover Silva Screen were to release an album and I hungrily took it in. What a discovery it was too! It’s a disc full of fire, emotion and humour and of course returning to watch the remaining episodes of the third series, those melodies jumped right out with a bit of familiarity. Highlights include the entrancing ‘Beautiful Chaos’ and ‘Annie’s Theme’, but the whole selection has a lot to offer. This is quite simply just great contemporary TV music with a fine mix of live performances and programmed hues to make you shiver, swoon and giggle, much like the series itself. Roll on Series Four! Finally from Silva is The Eagle, which comes from Atli Örvarsson. I admit to being a little narrow minded when I saw the release, what with the obvious connections and homages to Gladiator in the trailer etc, not to mention the fact that Örvarsson himself worked with the great Zimmer too. A cursory glance at the score credits though revealed a wealth of live performers, soloists and interesting instrumentation and I have to say it’s quite a colourful score. Sure there are some echoes of the omniscient Zimmer here, plus a few strains of Newman (Thomas) and Horner. There’s a lot of Celtic colour throughout the score, which shouldn’t have been such a surprise given the locale of the story (Old Britain and its borderland with Scotland) and the use of traditional folk melodies and such like. Percussion, dulcimer, cimbalom, pipes and vocals make up just some of the many additions to the usual suspects, all making for a robust film score all told. Ground breaking this might not be, but it’s good to hear something that’s had more than a little thought go into it. Of course the director is Kevin MacDonald and his past efforts have always seen cunningly conceived scores and source pieces by Alex Heffes. It was of course a surprise not to see Heffes attached to The Eagle… Small shame, but Örvarsson has stepped up to the plate admirably. La La Land Records continue to be generous with their releases and their recent roster has been typically good. John Morris is included once again with another fine turn in the shape of 1985’s Clue. The classic comedic whodunit is of course based on the board game ‘Cluedo’ and the colourful cast of characters are ably supported by Morris’ orchestral modes. Typically the composer takes the comedy very seriously with brassy accents, shivering strings, some camp electronics and a punchy little main theme capturing something of the mad-capped-ness of it all, not to mention the overriding ‘mystery’. A classic, of course. Another classic of the silver screen is noted with a double disc release of Ernest Gold’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a film which saw a cavalcade of comedy stars from the Silent Era through through to the then ‘present’ day. The likes of Buster Keaton and Mickey Rooney were billed alongside Phil Silvers, Ethel Merman and Jonathan Winters. The score, one of Gold’s most famous is suitably sprawling with its circus-like main theme giving way to unending thrills and spills for orchestra. Disc One captures the entire score, while Disc Two presents the original LP re-issue. Performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it’s quite a feat and a treat for the ears. Testosterone is definitely on the menu with the next two La La Land releases, namely Hans Zimmer’s Broken Arrow and Mark Mancina’s Money Train. Both are fine examples of 90s action scoring at its best, with Zimmer’s tried and tested brand of orchestral, synth, guitar mash-up working wonders for the big budget machismo-fest. The main theme, for guitar, is simple but has become somewhat iconic now and this very generous two-disc album showcases the work in its entirety with bonus selections from the original album too. Mancina’s effort from the previous year is of course related, given the two composer’s collaborative history, but it stands out as pure Mancina with the oh-so energetic figures just bursting out of the speakers. Again guitars and keyboards meet full-throttle action orchestra here, but with less emphasis on synth-pads. The composer reminisces in the sleeve booklet about the period, citing it as ‘the good old days’. These scores certainly paved the way for much of the modern film music we hear today and good or bad, these elder cousins are just brilliant examples of action film scoring done right. Finally an interesting release from La La Land by one of the brightest stars beginning work in Hollywood today, Abel Korzeniowski. The Polish-born composer of course came to fame through his staggeringly beautiful work on Tom Ford’s A Single Man and La La Land have released the composer’s music for a previously unknown Polish animation called Copernicus’ Star. The gorgeous little film was helped along beautifully by the original score, recorded in Poland with orchestra and chorus, and the selection released here only goes to prove just how talented a composer Abel Korzeniowski really is. The depth of emotion, melody and colour found here is again rather staggering and I for one am chomping at the bit to hear more from this exciting new voice. Lots to think about, seek out and enjoy if you can. Visit silvascreenmusic.com and lalalandrecords.com for more information and ordering information, not to mention news on their latest treats. As for me? The desk is empty once again, so I’ll be back soon with more thoughts on the latest releases.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Bristol Music... A Rant?

I live in Bristol, in fact I was born in Bristol, and while I’ve visited plenty of other places – considered ‘the move to London’ – there really is no place like home. The city has a rich cultural heritage, a colourful history and its streets, with their era-straddling, ever changing facades, could tell a thousand stories I have no doubt. There’s also music to be discovered in the ‘capital’ of the West of England...

The Hazlewood Affair...

People have questioned Bristol’s musicality of late, thanks in no small part to comments by Charles Hazlewood. His article, which came about in the lead up to the first concert of a new residency at St George’s Bristol with his orchestra The Army of Generals, alludes to the fact – and it is a fact – that Bristol is without a major ‘full time’ orchestra. He also began his spiel by stating that in his opinion the city is ‘desperately in need’ of ‘musical protein’.

While we’re hardly desperate, a city of our size should probably have an ensemble in the league of those based in Bimingham, Bournemouth, Liverpool, Scotland and London, not to mention the great BBC Orchestras. Bournemouth’s Symphony Orchestra has become the orchestral representative of the South and West and so we get to share them... Sure they’re a fine ensemble – they were in fact the first live orchestra I saw when I was a child – but I’m not sure I want to share them...

Of course we do have Bristolian orchestras, several in fact, and the likes of the Bristol Ensemble and the Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra (both re-branded in an attempt to be taken more seriously perhaps), not to forget the Bristol Concert Orchestra, Brandon Hill Chamber Orchestra and Bristol Classical Players, each perform very regularly across the city and do great things. The Bristol Ensemble is itself somewhat omniscient of late, striving to set out its stall as Bristol’s first orchestra. Concerts aside they do marvellous outreach work, which is brilliant and essential.

There’s more to musical protein than a name, or a budget though... it’s what you play that matters, how well you play it and how you package it. I think If you want to get people in off the street to hear Classical music, particularly in this city, then you can’t be in the least bit pretentious. Will Mr and Mrs Bloggs in the suburbs of Horfield or Hartcliffe actually give two hoots about ‘Abstractions and Refractions’ – the title of Charles’ concert series – the answer is no frankly. Charles wanted, nay wants, to break down the boundaries of the classical concert experience, ‘concert etiquette’ if you will, and get people in through the door and listening who wouldn’t normally... It’s a great idea which I’m all for, but a glance around the room at the first concert in the series revealed the usual suspects in a venue steeped, historically, in the very Classical etiquette he’s striving to avoid. I absolutely love St George’s dearly, but the whole arrangement seemed at odds with its initial aim I’m afraid.

Bristol audiences are famously fickle though... Gergiev appeared at Colston Hall last year and nobody came. That’s an exaggeration obviously, but it illuminated the fact that if people haven’t got an appetite for Classical music they just won’t bother, no matter how big the name on the poster.

What might have worked better for Charles’ general idea? Get an orchestra in the amphitheatre on the harbourside, or in Queen Square and belt out some tunes that the Bloggs’ might know, something for the Classic FM crowd and the casual listener who likes the theme from Star Wars. That would do it, then when you’ve got them try them with something different, something they don’t know. Don’t try and play them music they don’t care about in the first place and then add insult to injury by showing them how amusing and clever some composer they’ve never even heard of was so many years later... It just doesn’t wash.

In, something, we trust...

Colston Hall likes to think of itself as the city’s premier music venue. The shiny makeover has worked wonders, not to mention some name changes behind the scenes... The council is in the process of offloading their responsibility of the venue, instead creating The Bristol Music Trust to run its affairs. Interesting times then for the hall, which will continue to be financed by the council in the initial years of the Trust’s life, but then it’ll have to fend for itself in a time when money for the arts is hardly abundant. The eventual aim is for this trust to be ‘entrusted’ with the all the musical goings on in the city, acting perhaps as a central hub for not just the Colston Hall, but other venues and events too... It’s an interesting idea certainly, but with a community of venues very much with their own established identities, clientele and modus operandi, I doubt whether shoving it all under one umbrella will work. The meetings and feasibility studies continue (endlessly knowing Bristol City Council, until they’ve spent a fortune and decide to leave things just the way they are) so the jury’s out on the future of Bristol’s music making.

One thing’s for sure there are those is this city who love music, who make great music and who enjoy music... and I’m not just talking Classical. So as long as that continues, we can’t go very far wrong can we?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

On The Desk VII

Well here we are again, at the desk and contemplating all things Film Music (and, it goes without saying, More Besides). I’ve had quite an influx this last week or so, passed on from labels, composers, friends and even a few I’ve actually bought myself – which is a rare occurrence these days I can tell you. I still enjoy the rush of buying an album though, particularly if it’s for my collection. This week I filled some gaps in the Horner line-up, so I finally inserted Avatar, The Karate Kid, Jade and 48 Hours in… The Karate Kid, a surprise entry in the composer’s resume last year to be sure, is a great listen actually. I do find James Horner comes out guns blazing when he’s against the clock (many composers do in fact). The album is one of those controversial CD-R releases, made to order so to speak. Do I mind this? Well to be honest I haven’t thought about it along any further line than ‘oh it’s on CD, let me at it!’. I suppose there are some things to consider with the rise of the CD-R album, but I don’t think I have the energy to go into it now. All I know is I’m enjoying the album very much. End of.


48 Hours is an interesting little disc; first time on CD and featuring just about half an hour of Horner’s original score. The film, and score, is as old (or indeed young) as me… So yes it is a little dated here and there, but it represents one of the composer’s really early Hollywood entries (1982 fyi) and shows him in action, non sci-fi/fantasy mode which is seemingly all we know of him from that period. Some subtle electronics linger around the orchestral forces (not massive, but sizeable) and they come together with steel drum (yes, remember that in Commando? It’s the same here, and very similar all round I’d say) creating a rather interesting underscore to the otherwise snappy buddy comedy antics on screen. Horner very much lets the performers (Nolte and Murphy) do their thing and underlines the more serious aspects of the unfolding drama, chases and wotnot. It’s over in a flash of course, but the album goes on with original songs by The BusBoys and one source cue by the brilliant Ira Newborn, who also produced the songs. Good to tick the box though and have the album and it’s a colourful listen when all is said and done.

Last time round I promised The Promise (can one promise a promise?) and so I turn now to Debbie Wiseman’s latest dramatic turn for director Peter Kosminsky. The mini-series has just started on Channel 4 – so catch up if you can – and the composer’s emotional musical underpinning is characteristically on the money. Ebbing and flowing with a well honed sense of drama, Debbie Wiseman’s music is at once even tempered, subtly exotic and always beautiful. The traditional middle eastern instrumentation – including Oud, Kaval, Duduk and Arabic Violin – peppered throughout the cues is well balanced alongside the more usual solo turns from members of the RPO and of course the composer herself on Piano. Following two characters 60 years apart in history, the music is able to straddle both narrative strands allowing Debbie to make even distinctions thematically. There’s a darker hue to some of the flashback moments – ‘The Settlers’ and ‘The Fight’ for example – while the deeper emotion is often found in the cues with the least orchestration. It’s amazing what a solo piano can say… Food for thought and another fine score, plus a very generous album from Silva Screen Records.




Silva also released The Rite by Alex Heffes. Alex is such a great composer, and a jolly nice chap to boot, so it’s always good to hear new things from him. This film, by Swedish director Mikael Håfström stars the oh-so brilliant Anthony Hopkins as an unconventional Catholic Priest who tutors a young seminary at the Vatican’s Exorcism School… Fascinating stuff then, and a robust effort from the composer who opts for largely conventional trains of thought, given the subject matter. There are urgent strings, swathe of chorus, bubbling brass and jolting percussion aplenty, particularly in the exorcism cues themselves. ‘Exorcism of Lucas Part 1’ has a particularly impressive jump-start and builds to a heady fusion of contemporary atmospherics which, when coupled with some snarling brass and eerie choral moments, makes for a textbook gothic horror cue full of shudders. Textbook is often good, particularly when coming from a composer of this calibre and being as we haven’t heard anything like this from him before, it’s not a bad route to take… this is Hollywood after all and as a young, relatively unknown composer, you really need to stay within the parameters of what’s known and accepted by producers, otherwise they might go elsewhere. While Alex has done some great films, this is the first glossy Hollywood entry away from Kevin MacDonald and it’s a great first crack at the big studio nut.

Merry Christmas!?

Has Christmas come early, or is it late? La La Land Records’ release of Home Alone has appeared on my desk, at last. Ok so it’s late, the album was released in time for the movie’s twentieth anniversary (I cannot believe I’m writing that…). The film, produced by the late John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, has become a festive family classic and it’s music goes a long way to creating that sense of Christmas cheer, familial warmth and comedic caper. This new pressing from the label is just brilliant, with all of Williams’ cues collected together in film order, not to mention versions of his original songs (‘Somewhere in My Memory’ and ‘Star of Bethlehem’, written with Leslie Bricusse). While the original CBS Records soundtrack album (which is normally on repeat in the house every season) captured the heart of the music created for the film, there are a handful of fresh cues here to enjoy, plus some additional music in the shape of source cues (carol medleys and alternates) to make it worth the purchase, not to mention the fact that the 1990 album is very hard to find nowadays… The big draw for me was the booklet which features some great background to the film’s production and the creation of the score. It seems Williams was never considered – Bruce Broughton was credited in early trailers, but had to abandon the project due to other commitments – and it was only when he was treated to a sneak preview screening at Amblin Entertainment that he himself requested to do the picture, so excited was he by it. After all those years at the top of his game, and his name attached to near enough every Hollywood blockbuster in recent history, it’s no surprise Williams had a canny eye for a surefire hit… which it was.




La La Land are very much championing the music of the great John Morris, having release a number of his works in recent times, indeed the label just announced Clue which is fresh off the bat following their release of the brilliant Haunted Honeymoon. A master of pastiche, Morris provided a full-blown orchestral score for Gene Wilder’s 1986 comedy shocker using the talents of the London Symphony Orchestra no less. Wildly scintillating in places and full of fun in others – the main titles as source music for example in ‘Memory Music/Wolfington Castle – Haunted Honeymoon is a comedy score that takes itself absolutely seriously, though with its tongue firmly in its cheek of course! Jeff Bond’s liner notes are typically informative, making for a fine package all in all. With a composer as talented as Morris and an ensemble as mighty as the LSO you just can’t go wrong. Well done La La Land.

Speechless

Finally I look to The King’s Speech which I’ve finally managed to have a listen to away from the film itself, and what a film. It’s the BAFTAs this coming Sunday night and I’m in no doubt that this film will sweep the board, including a nod for Alexandre Desplat who has yet again delivered a sensitively sparkling dramatic score. There’s charisma here, beauty of course and emotional hues born of subtlety and a lightness of touch we’ve become so accustomed to. While Desplat’s score underlines the majority of the drama, his typically delicate title cue dances around slightly more sombre string passages. Those ‘heavier’ moments (as heavy as Desplat can be when he decorates them so elegantly) lead nicely into the disc’s final selection of Beethoven pieces. Of course the film’s denouement, where His Majesty gives the speech of his life, is underscored by a passage from Beethoven’s 7th which is chock full of tempered emotion it inspired tears by the scene’s end. A fine disc from Decca Records and hopefully an award-winning soundtrack for the composer of the hour.


Next time? Who knows… though I do have a confession to make. I’ve been listening to Henry Jackman’s Gullivers Travels and I’m excited, that’s all I’m saying. More on him next time.

The Promise and The Rite are available from Silva Screen Records now – silvascreenmusic.com – while lalalandrecords.com will take you to all manner of delights, including the Morris scores, Home Alone and their fine releases of Batman Returns and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier…

Thursday, 3 February 2011

John Barry 1933-2011

A sad week for film music with the news of John Barry’s passing, a true Lion of a composer whose legacy speaks volumes…

Listening to his work, as I have been since I heard the news on Tuesday morning – indeed I immediately selected his album ‘The Beyondness of Things’ to underscore my walk into the office that day – I was struck by the innocence to be found within his melody making. That album, followed by the equally brilliant ‘Eternal Echoes’ absolutely represents Barry at the peak of his orchestral composing. They’re very personal albums I think. It’s as if he had all these little musical ideas stored away and needed to get them out, share them with the world. That was a while ago now, and it’s been ten years since he actually scored a picture – Enigma being his celluloid swansong.

Of course everyone has been talking about James Bond and Barry is 007’s composer laureate. Those scores – and songs – are a legacy in themselves when you think just how important they are in conjuring the very essence of that character and those classic films. Me? I was never a Bond nut – I was too young to really jump on that fan-wagon, and I can’t think of a film scored by John Barry that I was able to appreciate fully. The later films were a bit heavy for a young Beek, though we did have Dances With Wolves on video at home…

It’s very easy to herald the brilliance of someone when they’ve left us and I feel something of a hypocrite in many respects when I do this today, as I admit to never giving Barry’s music as much time or enthusiasm over the years as other composers’ work. When I think back now I realise that it comes down to age. I was a child of the late 80s/early 90s and thus John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer are the composers who I was drawn to initially, and still hold in the highest esteem. Look at my CD collection and it’s those four names, in that order, which rank highest in terms of sheer numbers. Barry CDs? You’d have to look hard and go way down to the bottom, and even then it’s just a couple of compilation discs. Go to my hard drive though and it’s a different story. I have, in recent years, managed to gather 23 Barry albums… it’s a start.

Barry is as great as John Williams – certainly had as many Oscars – and was actually a year younger than the American. Some of Barry’s big successes came before Williams’ most famous, and in the 80s a John Barry score was sought after. Barry was the go-to composer for a deep, dramatic, mature sound… which Williams proved he could do much later. When Williams ‘came out’ as a serious dramatic composer with the likes of JFK, Schindler’s List and all that followed, it seems Barry was out of a job…

So while I haven’t had chance yet to listen to all his major works, the truth is Barry has been almost omnipresent all through my years. Whether it’s Bond films on the telly, or those great great themes for the likes of Zulu, The Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, Born Free and Out of Africa… These things are used, re-used, played again and again in concert, on television and alike, so in many ways I’m a Barry fan by default. I do have favourites though and Somewhere in Time is top of my list, followed by Out of Africa and Body Heat. I recently acquired The Deep and must finally play Moonraker… I’m actually quite excited to think there’s a whole world of ‘new’ music for me to discover for the first time.

John Barry, I am now your fan – I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but thank you for all the wonderful music you’ve left for us to enjoy, discover and rediscover.