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

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 – 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: