Clarence Fanto: Symphony film nights good trend

Sunday July 14, 2013

LENOX -- Finally, after decades of disparagement and neglect, the artistic craft of film music is being showcased through performances by the Boston Symphony and other major orchestras.

Of course, thanks to the vision of John Williams, the BSO's sibling, the Boston Pops, has been among the pioneers of annual film nights showcasing clips from Hollywood's vast 80-year repository of cinematic treasures.

But the presentation of complete films, such as last night's Tanglewood showing of "West Side Story" with the original music track removed in favor of a live performance by the Boston Symphony, is something recent and is to be warmly welcomed.

Among the greatest proponents of what's becoming a national trend is last night's conductor, David Newman, who has scored 115 films and is the son of Alfred Newman (1901-1970), who won nine Oscars, more than any other Hollywood composer. Alfred Newman's scores include "How the West Was Won" and "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing" as well as the fanfare that opens all Twentieth Century Fox films.

Chatting at Tanglewood the other day, David Newman, a classically trained composer and self-described extreme opera buff, explained that "what's so pleasing to me is that orchestras now are being more inclusive. Instead of just doing one thing, they're embracing many things. Film concerts are part of it." He urged movie studios to "get their act together for the scores and parts. If more stuff was available, it would be even better."

John Williams, who brings his annual Film Night back to Tanglewood on Aug. 24 with help from Newman, "was the one of the people who brought symphonic music back to film in the 1970s, because it was gone," said Steve Linder, who supervises productions of live "orchestra to movie" nights in his role as a VIP at IMG Artists, the performing-arts super-agency.

More recently, "it was really time to bring it back to the concert hall, and I think the fact that there is such an appetite is deeply satisfying for us," he added. "People keep wanting more."

As Linder sees it, "the idea of concerts with film, full-film concerts, is really just part of the standard orchestra offerings. Every orchestra does it in North America. Some do more than others." Apart from Boston, he cited the orchestras of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco as presenting annual series of film concerts.

"They don't dumb it down," Linder emphasized. "They treat it with the respect and integrity of any other concert they're presenting."

Newman is eagerly anticipating his first-time collaboration with Williams at Film Night. "He doesn't collaborate with anybody," said Newman. "I was incredibly honored to be asked. I think he wanted some help because it's hard to put together and do a whole program."

Tanglewood buffs recall that in 1991, Music Director Seiji Ozawa conducted the BSO during a screening of "Alexander Nevsky," the great 1938 Russian film by Sergei Eisenstein that was scored by Prokofiev, who also transformed the music into a cantata for orchestra, chorus and mezzo-soprano. Prokofiev was just one of a group of 20th century classical composers who also wrote music for the movies.

Making the rounds of orchestras now are film presentations of classics such as "Casablanca," "Psycho," "Singin' in the Rain," and "The Wizard of Oz." There are nights devoted to scores of films by Hitchcock, Rodgers and Hammerstein -- even "Bugs Bunny at the Symphony" and "Bugs Bunny at the Opera."

In their quest for diversity, some orchestras are also presenting semi-staged performances of Broadway classics -- the New York Philharmonic, which recently offered "Carousel," has announced Stephen Sondheim's 1978 musical thriller, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," for next season.

Such special programs, sometimes presented on multiple nights, sell out at premium prices and help orchestras survive, keeping them solvent so they can explore ambitious contemporary works and continue to champion the art music of the Western world going back to the 1700s.

Once widely denigrated by cultural snobs, film music has won its rightful place in the symphony-orchestra repertoire. Its leading composers include Williams, the Newmans (a musical dynasty whose family members would fill this space), Max Steiner of "Gone With the Wind" and "Casablanca" fame, Dimitri Tiomkin ("High Noon"), Bernard Herrmann, who composed the scores for Alfred Hitchcock's best-known films, and Elmer Bernstein ("The Magnificent Seven," "To Kill a Mockingbird"), among many more.

Given the artistic and box-office success of last night's "West Side Story," which will be repeated by the BSO in Symphony Hall next February, let's hope that Tanglewood will host more live film-to-orchestra events in the summers to come.

Clarence Fanto writes a column in this space every Sunday. To reach him, email


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions