No Statuette for Oscars' Two Musical Directors

I was appalled at the results of the attempt to "contemporize" the music for this year's Oscar show, as detailed in advance by co-musical directors Burt Bacharach and Don Was ("The Sound of Change," by Jon Burlingame, March 20).

Since Bacharach appears to have only been responsible for a rather thin-sounding overture and a somewhat self-serving medley of previous Oscar-winning songs--which only helped to emphasize the lackluster quality of some of the songs nominated in more recent years--my issues are more with Was.

This gentleman was responsible for the direction of the pit band, which played the music for the entrances and exits of presenters and award recipients. In the article, he mentioned that being able to "start and stop on a dime" was a challenge--a task an experienced musical director does as a matter of course. The fact that Billy Crystal (who made a remark about it) and other presenters often had to stand there waiting for the band to stop playing in order to speak would seem to indicate this challenge went unmet.

The playing of cues from the CD of a movie's score while the pit band played along was another miserable failure, and I'm sure all the film composers who supposedly "applauded" the producers' idea prior to the show weren't applauding afterward. What one of the producers had told us would be a "much richer sound than ever before, with more variety" turned out to be an endless succession of loud, banal, irrelevant and repetitive contemporary rhythmic patterns, played by what sounded like a drum machine, or a drummer who played like one, accompanied by some other less audible rhythm instruments. Any melodic or harmonic elements, or the "lyricism" mentioned in the article, were virtually inaudible. Perhaps mercifully so!

On the rare occasions when recorded cues from a movie's CD were audible, they were generally ill-chosen, particularly when Warren Beatty entered to receive the prestigious Thalberg Award while a tinny-sounding piano from the score of his movie "Reds" tried to compete with the applause of the audience. How grand!

It is ironic that the producers failed to recognize that the traditional Oscar orchestra--which they eventually were obliged to engage and place in an offstage room in order to fulfill the musical requirements of Crystal's superb opening number, plus the wonderfully irreverent performance of "Blame Canada" and Jerry Goldsmith's majestic Oscar Fanfare--could have provided much of the pace and the myriad musical emotions, colors and styles, both traditional and contemporary, so sadly lacking in this year's show.

My final indignation is directed at the synthesized musical sound used every time the director cut back and forth to the screen for the film clips of the nominees. This sound was somewhat akin to that of a toilet being flushed--an unfortunate but perhaps appropriate commentary on much of the evening's musical proceedings.

Ian Fraser is a former Academy Award nominee and 11-time Emmy Award-winning musical director. He was the musical director of the 56th annual Academy Awards and is the president of the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers.

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