Reel Classics: Allentown Symphony to perform themes from epic motion pictures
Often the popular music of our time becomes the masterpieces for people living 200 years or more in the future. Music that we perhaps might consider as entertainment now could become the core orchestral repertoire of the next century.
I think of the opera overtures written in the 1800s that orchestras now play as “serious” music, and how so many of them are beloved by all and part of the standard orchestral music at concerts today. Most of these pieces when they were written were not considered anything special. They were just the opening music that was played before the operas. Operas at that time were like our modern-day musicals, the stage performances that people went to for entertainment.
What happens over time, however, is that the really powerful music, the really emotionally-moving melodies, the really well-crafted pieces, stay with us. They make that shift from popular music to “masterpieces” status, and they become “classics.”
I am sure that this is going to be true for much of the music written for film. Famous film melodies and segments will be the music that lasts beyond our time. Themes from “E.T.”; “Robin Hood”; “Lord of the Rings” and other films will be the music that people are playing and enjoying 200 years from now.
And so I wanted to create a concert for you of what I consider as “epic” film music: Music that is written in a way that showcases the symphony orchestra, and that gives you drama, excitement, intrigue, love and joy, with that larger than life orchestral sound.
The “Movie Classics: The Sound Of Cinema” concerts of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8 and 2 p.m. Feb. 9, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown, feature works by 11 film composers from nine different countries. All of these composers are Academy Award-winning composers, and many of the pieces that we will be performing in the concerts are Academy Award-winning film scores.
What I found fascinating as I selected the music was how many similarities of tonality and mood crossed over all these pieces, and yet each one is individual in its own way. The combination of these pieces creates a very powerful and exciting concert of music.
The program opens with “Parade of the Charioteers” by Hungarian composer Miklós Rósa, written in 1959 for the film “Ben-Hur,” starring Charlton Heston. This film work is triumphant and full of brass fanfares. It is a great way to start the concert.
In parallel fashion, the second half of the concert opens with another march that has a similar flair and style. It is from the 1938 film “Robin Hood” by Austrian composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Both of these composers, Rósa and Korngold, wrote more traditional classical music for the orchestra as well as film music and you will hear that in their style of writing.
The music by American composer Bernard Herrmann, for director Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Psycho” (1960) features just the string section. Its sparseness is its most important quality and it echoes the subtlety in the film itself. Angular, strident and a little eerie, it creates the perfect mood for this famous movie murder scene.
The concert features some very unique instruments. One of these is the erhu, which is a Chinese string instrument, like a violin, but with just two strings, and it is played sitting down like a cello. The Chinese composer, Tan Dun, won an Academy Award in 2000 for the film score to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” The music features an erhu solo prominently as well as Chinese flute, and lots of percussion.
Performing on the erhu will be Yue (Cathy) Yang, who studied erhu at the Central Conservatory of Music in China. She won first prize in the Long Yin Instrumental Soloist Competition and a gold medal at the China Ministry of Culture Music Competition. She has toured extensively, playing the erhu all over the world.
Yang will also be featured on the erhu in the music from “The Last Emperor” (1987) by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, which will also showcase a Japanese string instrument called a koto, as well as a Japanese stone flute. These unusual instruments will be fascinating to watch being played as well as to hear.
The percussion section musicians get their moments to shine with the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” score, which features five solo percussion players, and also on the music from the 1962 film starring Peter O’Toole, “Lawrence of Arabia” by French composer Maurice Jarre. Timpani, tom-toms, bongos, timbales, tenor drums, snare drums, tambourines and more will echo across the stage.
And what film concert would be complete without a few pieces by the most famous film composer of our time, John Williams? John Williams has received 24 Grammy Awards and five Academy Awards for best film score.
We will performing Williams’ tango, “Por una Cabeza,” from the 1992 film “Scent of a Woman,” which starred Al Pacino. The piece will feature Allentown Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Eliezer Gutman as violin soloist. I love the idea of contrasting a solo violin piece on the program with the erhu piece, since the erhu is considered the Chinese violin.
The first half of the concert will end with music from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,“ written by Williams in 1982.
In the second half of the program, “Lord of the Rings” fans will enjoy music by Canadian composer Howard Shore as we play music from “The “Fellowship of the Ring” (2001). This musical medley of famous themes from the film will help us relive this epic movie. Shore is an expert at using a variety of orchestral colors to create the battle scenes and then reverting to a charming folk-like quality for music to portray Frodo and Sam in the Shire.
For the last three pieces in the concert we will feature the Allentown Symphony Chorus, director Eduardo Azzati, joined by the Southern Lehigh High School Meistersingers, with director Matthew Wehr, for three very fun pieces that combine chorus with orchestra.
You might remember the films called “Spaghetti Westerns,” a term that described Westerns that were produced and directed by Italians. In 1966, Italian composer Ennio Morricone wrote the music for one of the most famous Spaghetti Westerns, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” You might not remember it by name, but I think you will recognize it when you hear its famous melody, complete with electric guitar, and a whistled and sung theme.
You are probably familiar with the music from the 2009 film “Avatar” by the American composer James Horner. For this film, an alien language, “Na’vi,” was created, which the chorus sang. Horner combined Na’vi sounds with a more traditional orchestra sound to drive the action of the film. This piece uses native- sounding instruments like kena (pan-pipes) and tin whistle.
To conclude the program, we perform the “O Fortuna” from “Carmina Burana,” written in 1935 by German composer Carl Orff. This piece was not actually written for film, but it is the most performed classical piece used in the film industry ever. One of the well-known feature films it was used in was the 1981 film “Excalibur.”
I find that music written for film is exciting, engaging and intriguing. Many of the best composers of all time have enjoyed writing film music. I hope that you will join us as we enjoy these Academy Award-winning film scores as performed by the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.
See you at the Symphony.
“Meet the Artist,” with Allentown Symphony Music Director-Conductor Diane Wittry, Cathy Yu, Erhu soloist, and Eliezer Gutman, violin soloist, noon-1 p.m. Feb. 7, Miller Symphony Hall, Allentown. The talk is free and open to the public.
Diane Wittry is Music Director and Conductor of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Music Director and Conductor of The Garden State Philharmonic, New Jersey, and author of “Beyond the Baton” and “Baton Basics.” She teaches conducting workshops throughout the United States and Europe.
Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall Box Office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; allentownsymphony.org; 610-432-6715. Free student tickets, for those up to age 21, underwritten by a grant from the Century Fund, are available for Allentown Symphony Orchestra concerts