A match made in Hollywood

Times Staff Writer

Culture in Southern California woos Hollywood with a charming persistence. But how much genuine attraction there is in this courtship is hard to tell. Each party has something to gain. The arts want a share of the glamour and a joint bank account. Movies, every so often, crave class, although a one-night stand is usually enough.

Monday evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic did the wooing. For its annual Musicians Pension Fund gala, the orchestra invited John Williams to conduct a tribute to Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite composer, and to Williams’ own 34-year collaboration with Steven Spielberg. Martin Scorsese hosted the Herrmann half. Spielberg took over after intermission to introduce his work with Williams.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 8, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Disney Hall chimes: A review in Wednesday’s Calendar said the theme John Williams wrote for the chimes at Walt Disney Concert Hall had been discarded. It has not.

On some level, the concert reflected a mature relationship. Williams has long-standing ties to the orchestra. He was commissioned to write a piece for the opening of Disney as well as the theme (since discarded) for the hall’s chimes. Esa-Pekka Salonen recorded a disc of Herrmann’s music several years ago. Spielberg also participated in one of the opening Disney concerts in 2003.


Scorsese was the outsider Monday, but not really. Herrmann wrote his last score for Scorsese’s 1976 film, “Taxi Driver.” And if Scorsese remains a New Yorker, he is Hollywood royalty nonetheless and very popular in this town these days, having finally won an Oscar. Moreover, Scorsese has what may be the finest ear among mainstream Hollywood directors.

The directors came to praise music. Through music, Scorsese said, we come face to face with the expanse, the continuum, the endlessness of time. Spielberg called music “the greatest thing we humans who inhabit this planet have in common.”

But putting an orchestra and film together on the Disney stage, which was designed for music alone, requires compromise. Employing curtains to make spoken voices intelligible dulls the orchestra’s sound. Film clips projected on a large screen hung in front of the Disney organ looked early VHS-era low-tech.

Scorsese and Spielberg brought staid texts. Both proved interesting when they ignored them. For Scorsese, those moments included memories of working with the irascible Herrmann, who, when first contacted by the director, said he didn’t write music about cabbies. When Scorsese wanted an ambiguous something for the end of “Taxi Driver,” Herrmann gave him a “sting” -- a sharply attacked note on the xylophone. It wasn’t quite right, so the composer said to play it backward and impatiently walked out. He died that night in his sleep. The backward sting, Scorsese said, worked.

Spielberg’s approach to music is often just the opposite. He talked us through a slapstick chase scene from the third “Indiana Jones” film as it was projected first with sound effects but no music, explaining how music was needed to underscore every detail. When Williams played the score live along with the clip, it did just that with balletic agility.

In the program’s first half, Williams led excerpts from various Herrmann soundtracks, including the Coplandesque “Ballad of Springfield Mountain” from “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” the shower scene from “Psycho,” the “Tristan”-esque love music from “Vertigo” and the proto-Minimalist opening to “North by Northwest.” Dan Higgins was the saxophone soloist in the jazzy “A Night-Piece for Orchestra” from “Taxi Driver.”


In the Williams half, the strings shimmered in excerpts from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the orchestra thumped out the “Jaws” theme and violinist Bing Wang was the emotional soloist for the theme from “Schindler’s List.” The last 14 minutes of “E.T.” were screened as finale, with Williams’ through-composed music played live.

Both this and the “Indiana Jones” clip suffered from the live orchestra’s being poorly mixed with a tinny-sounding dialogue and effects track. Orchestra and visuals alone might have, instead, proved thrilling.

For the first of three long encores, Williams conducted excerpts from “The Sugarland Express,” the first of his 22 films with Spielberg. It too is Coplandesque, with only hints of the grander, more amplified symphonic style he soon developed.

Williams can be a flamboyant composer, but he is an understated conductor. He goes for the long line, trusts the music and lets the details take care of themselves. That may not always be the most persuasive approach -- it was a long evening -- but it prevented overblown or sentimental music from sounding egregious or from altogether spoiling this latest date between film and the Philharmonic.