While you’re ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ at the Hollywood Bowl, he’s keeping the musicians in sync
This weekend David Newman will assume his now-regular place on the Hollywood Bowl stage, co-conducting with John Williams in the latter’s annual program of movie music. Then on Sept. 7, Newman will conduct the score for “Singin’ in the Rain,” synced to the film.
If being the leading conductor of orchestral scores performed live to picture — and composing the scores to more than 100 films — doesn’t uniquely qualify Newman to champion the art of film music, one other fact may: His father helped to invent it.
Newman’s dad, Alfred, came to Hollywood from Broadway at the dawn of sound in cinema. Along with contemporaries Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the elder Newman established the vocabulary and standards of film scoring. He served as musical director at 20th Century Fox and won nine Academy Awards (out of 44 nominations), scoring such films as “All About Eve,” “How the West Was Won” and “The Song of Bernadette.”
The Newman family tree overflows with film music sap. Alfred’s brother, Lionel, was a prolific composer, conductor and director of music at Fox. David Newman’s cousin is Randy Newman, the Oscar-winning composer of “The Natural” and “Toy Story” (and a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer). David Newman’s younger brother, Thomas, is the Oscar-nominated composer of “The Shawshank Redemption” and “American Beauty.”
David Newman, 63, inherited that legacy but also grew up under its enormous shadow. He started studying piano and violin in elementary school, and his childhood in Pacific Palisades was booked with lessons, rehearsals and concerts. It was his mother, Martha — a former Goldwyn Girl from Mississippi — who insisted on a traditional German education in music.
Like a queen readying her children for the throne, she insisted that “the children of Alfred Newman will be musicians,” Newman said.
The music sank in. Newman studied violin at USC and spent years playing in studio orchestras on film scores such as Williams’ “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” and Jerry Goldsmith’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” He also studied conducting, intensely. From the time he was a teenager he wanted to be the next Toscanini, and he devoted hours a day throughout his 20s under the mentorship of William Kettering, who also taught conducting to Thomas, Randy and David’s younger sister, Maria.
Kettering “believed in learning music indigenously, innately,” explained Maria Newman, a professional violinist and concert composer. “The music that you were hearing became a language to you, something in which you were fluent.”
Newman was a disciple of Kettering’s technique, using an extra-long baton and communicating wordlessly to the orchestra with nuanced and very intentional body movement. He dreamed of being the music director of a great orchestra, like his father. But just like his father, at age 30 he turned to composing.
“His father always said that he wished he had been a conductor, but he had to support his family — and that was the whole family,” Randy Newman said.
Alfred Newman supported his nine siblings, the children of Jewish Russian immigrants, from an early age. He died in 1970 at age 69, a few weeks before David turned 16.
David found early success scoring children’s movies (“The Brave Little Toaster”) and comedies (“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”), which have dominated his résumé. He became the go-to composer for director Danny DeVito on films such as “Throw Momma From the Train” and “Hoffa.”
“It’s been a long and wonderful relationship,” DeVito said. “We’ve always connected on the kind of bizarre and the dark and the funny. It was like one of those matches made in heaven when I met him.”
They recently started developing an opera together, although the actor-director said they had to “put a little pin in it” for the time being.
“I would love to do an opera with David, because he’s got that in him,” DeVito said. “He’s got that scope, that Wagnerian range.”
It’s the most unexpectedly interesting thing that’s happened for me.
David Newman, on his emergence as a leader in conducting live-to-picture concerts
Newman has received an Oscar nomination, for his score to the 1998 animated film “Anastasia,” but prestige picture offers have been few and far between.
“He deserves good film assignments. Technically he’s tremendous, and he’s got a great picture sense,” Randy Newman said, noting the kinds of comedies his cousin takes on are hard to compose. “He’s better than the assignments he’s getting. He deserves to have actors and actresses emoting, you know — a serious picture.”
David is a great composer, sister Maria Newman said, “but I don’t think composing was his first love. Conducting was.”
In the late ’80s Newman became music director of the Sundance Institute, and he conducted film music including his own new score for the silent classic “Sunrise.” He started conducting movie nights at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007 and took on the most daunting project yet in 2011: conducting the score for “West Side Story,” which had to match exactly the original vocal tracks.
“It’s the most unexpectedly interesting thing that’s happened for me,” he said.
He’s since been hired to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic in live-to-picture concerts of “E.T.,” “Home Alone,” “Back to the Future” and the original “Star Wars” trilogy.
“We were all kind of surprised by what the experience felt like,” he said, “what a joyous experience it is for everybody. Being on stage, and hearing and feeling just the joy of reliving something that you loved as a kid, or bringing your kids to something that you loved — all the kinds of people that are going to be there that have probably never been to a symphony concert.”
As orchestras are finding new life and sold-out audiences with live-to-picture film concerts, they have an intensely passionate music director with cinema in his blood.
“He’s the best conductor in Hollywood now, just as his father was before him,” Randy Newman said. “He’s kind of beautiful up there.”
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