Carl St.Clair can clearly recall being in the third grade in his hometown of Yoakum, Texas, and being “marched down to the Grand Theater where we all got to see ‘Ben-Hur.’ I was totally captivated,” he says. “The score was overwhelming to me.”
Fifty years later, St.Clair is poised to conduct some of Miklós Rózsa’s Oscar-winning music from that 1959 epic -- specifically, the “Parade of the Charioteers” -- as part of the Pacific Symphony’s annual American Composers Festival, beginning Thursday in Costa Mesa.
Previous festivals have been devoted to, among other areas, music of Mexico and of the American West. This year’s theme is “Hollywood’s Golden Age,” but it does not spotlight the usual pops-concert lineup of chestnuts such as “Gone With the Wind” and " Star Wars.” Instead, the festival will offer a fairly radical program that pairs concert music by five composers with their more familiar film works.
In addition to Rózsa’s, the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann -- who also worked during that “golden age” of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s -- will be featured. Also represented will be living composers James Newton Howard, whose “Defiance” score is up for an Academy Award tonight and who has written a 19-minute orchestral piece that will premiere as part of the festival, and Paul Chihara, a veteran composer who writes both film and concert music.
“Hollywood composers of the generation of Korngold and Rózsa and Herrmann were stigmatized,” explains festival artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz. “Only now can they receive a fair hearing as composers for film or for concert music.
“A composer like Bernard Herrmann simply was not on the map because he composed for Hollywood and because he composed in what was considered to be a retrograde idiom,” Horowitz says. “In retrospect, Herrmann has to be considered one of the most important American composers of his generation, period.”
Best known for his associations with Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann will be represented during the festival by a suite from Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and two rarely performed works for other media: “City of Brass,” written in 1934 for CBS Radio, and “Souvenirs de Voyage,” a clarinet quintet from 1967 that Horowitz calls “the great discovery of the festival . . . a major American chamber work that is virtually unknown.”
From Korngold, the Austrian opera composer who immigrated to America in 1938 and scored such Warner Bros. swashbucklers as “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” the festival will offer a " Kings Row” suite, a movement from his rarely played 1952 symphony, and Songs for Baritone and Piano. Selections by the Hungarian-born Rózsa will include the one from “Ben-Hur” plus his Theme and Variations for Violin, Cello and Orchestra and a solo cello piece.
Sharing the bill on the festival’s first three nights (and in an abbreviated program next Sunday) will be 21st century music by Howard, whose “I Will Plant a Tree” was commissioned by the festival and marks Howard’s first music for the concert hall. The composer’s more than 100 film scores include “Michael Clayton” and “The Village”; he recently won a Grammy for “The Dark Knight” and also wrote the theme for TV’s " ER.”
St.Clair, the Pacific Symphony music director, says that he asked his players -- many of whom double as studio recording musicians -- about film composers “with a great feel for the orchestra” and that Howard’s name kept coming up. He says he finds Howard’s film scores “unique, and his sound palette really captivating.”
Howard reflected on the commission recently while seated at a keyboard in his Santa Monica studio. “This is a soul-cleansing process for me,” he said, “to be able to write completely unrestricted, provide my own narrative and work with Carl St.Clair and an orchestra the caliber of Pacific Symphony.” Yet, he added, “Having no restraints is liberating and terrifying. I can’t hide behind a movie -- the music will be evaluated on its own merits.”
Howard felt he needed a narrative. He remembered a quote from Martin Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
“I was struck by the overwhelming positivity of that statement in the face of the possibility of the world ending,” he said. “The world is in deep crisis now in so many ways, I wanted it to be about grace in the face of tremendous difficulty. That’s what inspired me to begin the piece.”
“This is great music, regardless of how you want to pigeonhole it,” says St.Clair, talking about the composers whose music will be heard in the festival. “With ‘Vertigo,’ I don’t care if it has a movie attached to it or not. It’s just great music in its own right. Composers like Korngold and Herrmann and Rózsa deserve the same sort of attention and respect regardless of where they’re writing.”
However, according to Horowitz, author of “Classical Music in America: A History,” there has lately been a major shift in the perception of composers who worked primarily in film. “We’re no longer modernists,” he explains. “We no longer think that a 20th century composer who composes in a traditional tonal language is not to be taken seriously. And film music as a whole tends not to embrace -- although there are exceptions -- a modernist aesthetic.”
He also points out that Korngold and Rózsa enjoyed success on European concert stages before immigrating to America and finding success in movie music. “In Korngold’s case, the film and concert idioms are almost indistinguishable,” he says. “In Rózsa’s case, you can recognize the same style, but the works are very distinguishable. He’s much less a populist when he’s composing for the concert hall.”
Herrmann, he adds, “is such an interesting and adventurous composer.” That’s music to the ears of Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith, who contends that the New York-born contemporary of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Roy Harris has been unjustly neglected in the concert hall.
“Herrmann would often say that composers like Mozart and Haydn wrote incidental music for parties, dances, ballets and dramatic works,” Smith notes. “He saw what he did in film, television and radio as a continuation of that idea.”
On the festival’s March 2 program, along with Herrmann’s clarinet quintet, is Chihara’s “Minidoka,” a chamber work that points up the difficulty of attempting to label modern composers as either commercially driven or legitimate concert artists.
Minidoka is the name of the Idaho internment camp where Chihara, an American of Japanese ancestry, spent some of his childhood during World War II. Written in 1996, his 11-minute piece draws in part on his score for “Farewell to Manzanar,” a 1976 made-for-TV movie that called attention to the plight of the Japanese Americans interned in such camps.
“What we are trying to do is take film music seriously, not just as fine popcorn music,” Chihara says. “I’d love to see something by Bernard Herrmann on a concert with Mahler or Debussy. It should be part of our serious concert repertoire.”
Chihara and Howard will join Horowitz during the festival, sometimes in pre-concert lectures and sometimes on stage. “There will be a lot of interaction, multimedia, talking and sharing and exchanges from the stage,” says St.Clair. “That’s very much in keeping with a festival as opposed to a straight-ahead concert.”
Adds Horowitz: “We’re systematically looking at the differences -- in the case of composers who write for film -- between concert music and film music. We want to take a second look at these composers -- now that we’re no longer prejudiced against them.”