It seems likely that for many audiences, their exposure to symphonic orchestras is through the movies, via their lush, fully orchestrated background scores. Even before movies started to talk, they had live orchestras accompanying the on-screen action, at least in larger theatres. Recorded symphonic music on the soundtrack became a fixture of Hollywood’s most elaborate spectacles in the 1930s and found a special place in the genre of science fiction and adventure films in the late ‘70s with John Williams’s scores for STAR WARS, SUPERMAN and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The title of Grant Park Music Festival’s July 11 program suggested such a repertoire, but it delivered something refreshingly different: a selection of music that while written for or featured in films, made satisfying concert selections in their own rights. The Grant Park Orchestra played under the baton of guest conductor Vinay Parameswaran, assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.
All the orchestra’s sections had a chance to shine
One of the hallmarks of so many film scores is their abundant use of wind and percussion instruments along with the large string sections – a sort of orchestration not always found in frequently string-heavy classical symphonic music. This concert opened with Parade of the Charioteers from Miklós Rósza’s score for the 1959 film BEN-HUR. The short piece was a brilliant lead-off for the evening, with trumpets heralding the opening notes to a brass-heavy march that also employed timpani for additional dramatic effect.
Next on the program was Suite from LIEUTENANT KIJE, Op. 60 by Sergei Prokofiev: music from a little known Soviet comedy film released in 1934. This suite is said to be one of Prokofiev’s most accessible and popular compositions for the concert hall. Just as the BEN-HUR march was a showcase for brass, this suite featured the woodwinds on its gentle and lively melodies. Maestro Parameswaran gave a brief background of the plot of this obscure film comedy, displaying a relaxed, unforced charm in his role as MC as well as conductor.
Grant Park Music Festival offers salute to two classic films
Parameswaran followed the 19-minute Prokofiev suite with a short selection from a movie that is better known than its music: Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE, considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. The Overture to CITIZEN KANE by Bernard Herrmann is a bright, lively piece that suggests the fast-pace of the newspaper business as shown in the film. Bernard Herrmann’s score for CITIZEN KANE was his first of a career that would include music many classic movies, including eight directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
The next classic film film composer represented on the stage of the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park was the 1938 film THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (starring Errol Flynn as the charming outlaw in green) and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold. An Austrian who moved to the US in 1934, Korngold scored many of the adventure films of the ‘30s. His Suite from ROBIN HOOD opened with a trumpet fanfare suggestive of Old England and moved through a pastoral passage called Poor People before settling into a playful march named Robin Hood and His Merry Men. That was followed by a sweet selection called Love Scene. The suite concluded with The Fight, Victory, Epilogue – a rousing selection that made it possible for one to picture arrows flying through the air before changing to a triumphant section to underscore the victory over the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was a fitting feature selection
George Gershwin’s symphonic tone poem suggesting the alternately jubilant, exhilarating and blue moods of an American visiting Paris for the first time was the only piece of the evening not originally written for a film. Rather, this symphonic work that premiered in 1928 inspired a movie – the 1951 musical of the same name. The film created a romance around several Gershwin songs and featured a ballet choreographed and danced by Gene Kelly, set to nearly the entire orchestral piece. One of the most popular orchestral concert pieces ever, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS employs Gershwin’s gift for melody and orchestration. Brass, winds, strings and percussion blend to create a picture of a great city – lively, diverse and with an energizing and uplifting spirit. Only a great city could have inspired such a wonderful piece of music – and it’s hard to picture a better tribute to a city than Gershwin composed for Paris.
John Williams’ RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK brought the evening to a triumphant close.
The newest selection of the evening – and certainly the best known – was John Williams’ Raiders March – the main theme from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. It was a fitting end to the short concert (about 80 minutes) in that it not only recalled the fun of the film but also acknowledged Williams’s debt to the film composers who preceded him – composers like Rósza, Herrmann and Korngold, who created this very special genre of orchestral music.
This particular program will not be repeated but the Grant Park Symphony continues to play through August 18 this summer Wednesdays and Fridays at 6:30, and 7:30 Saturdays, mostly in Pritzker Pavilion at Millennium Park.
For more information check the Grant Park Music Festival website.
Photos by Norman Timonera
About the Author:
John Olson is an arts carnivore who is particularly a love of music, theatre and film. He studied piano, trombone and string bass into his college years, performing in bands and orchestras in high school and college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While working as an advertising agency account manager, he began a second career as an arts journalist and is now principal of John Olson Communications, a marketing and public relations business serving arts and entertainment clients.