If Life Were a Film Score, Then Youth Would Be Trumpets

Goldsmith-Project-May-2-1024x731“It’s hard to not to think of just a person playing the violin.” This is how my roommate James Taylor (not that James Taylor) jokingly responded after posing the question, what do you imagine while listening to classical music? James had been hired by classical music radio station KUSC to help come up with a possible interactive visualization tool for the station’s website, and was pondering ways in which to illustrate the complex string section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

To help enliven his task, I invited James to come see the American Youth Symphony’s (AYS) final performance of their season at Royce Hall in the UCLA campus. He was unable to join me, but as soon as I sat down and took a look at the program, I realized he should have. The night was entitled, “The Goldsmith Project: The Middle Years (1971-1982)” and was dedicated to the late Oscar-winning film composer Jerry Goldsmith, specifically his works in the golden age of cinema—arguably the peak of his career. It marked the second installment of a planned three-year ‘Goldsmith Project’ the American Youth Symphony was doing in collaboration with the Film Music Society.

The opening number was not from a film, however; it was called “Music for Orchestra,” and was a single-movement commission piece Goldsmith composed for the St. Louis Symphony in 1970. This was the same year Goldsmith lost a wife to divorce and a mother to serious illness. Needless to say, the 8-minute-long dodecaphony expresses some dark themes, and as I examined the young performers (nobody a day past 27) arranged upon the stage, I was afraid the themes might prove too dark. But once I saw internationally-acclaimed conductor, and music director of AYS, Alexander Treger standing up on stage, baton in hand, fully confident in his fresh-faced ensemble, I knew I was in for a professional treat.

And such was the case. The kids—if I may call them that—finished “Music for Orchestra” flawlessly, their faces not showing the slightest hint of consternation, or effort even. As they went on to the next piece, excerpts from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land (1954), I thought of how when I was the same age as some of the violin section, I rarely did anything without making a mistake. Meanwhile, these musicians—though even that title seems insufficient—flew through the gently epic tones of America’s most celebrated composer like it was breakfast.

Soon the much older members of the Angeles Chorale joined their youthful counterparts for the second movement of Tender Land. And it might have been the Whitman-esque phrasings in Copland’s lyrics, or the brassy Americana of his melodies, but the hall—mainly older folk—started to balloon with such a sense of hope. I couldn’t help but attribute this feeling to the mutual offerings of respect operating between the orchestra, the chorus, the audience, and even Copland himself.

Then came the film score section, led by guest conductor David Newman (that’s right…the man who brought you the legendary scores of Norbit, Scooby-Doo, Galaxy Quest, The Flintstones, and yes, Alvin and the Chipmuks: The Squeakquel). But who am I to kid? If anything Newman’s resume, and his affiliation with AYS, tells me that he’s comfortable catering to younger audiences, as well as adapting older themes into new ones. Which is almost exactly what he did. Under his direction, the young players—does that description work?—breathed life back into the forgotten, and in some cases never performed Goldsmith-penned soundtracks behind such films as Capricorn One and Papillon.

The real ticker of the night, however, came when they rolled down the giant projection screen above the stage and dimmed the lights, the orchestra members turning on their miniature stand-lights to see the sheet music for the score of the film Alien. Along with Chinatown and The Omen (which was performed later), this is probably one of Goldsmith’s best known works, only we were posed to hear the part of the score never before heard by a large audience—the part edited out of the original cut, yet inserted back in with precision for the night’s performance.

What became immediately apparent to me as I watched Sigourney Weaver and cohorts wrestle their way through a dark spaceship, the encroaching alien behind any corner, was the significance of silence in a film score. Long, sharp notes from an instrument called a serpent (a predecessor of the tuba), followed by just enough space for the action to take precedence over the music. I realized that film scores like Alien, or even more solemn ones like QB VII—another Goldsmith composition for the first-ever miniseries about the Holocaust—aren’t necessarily multi-layered. But they contain a lot of whimsy and neat tricks; they’re more interested in whisking you along the ride, rather than getting you lost inside it. They provide the space for images, so that the audience doesn’t just picture a person playing the violin. A good film composer must be versatile, proficient, and able to bend their distinct voice in service of another artist. Come to think of it, much like a young musician.

The American Youth Symphony 2009-2010 season has ended, but will start up again next year with yet another series of admission free performances at UCLA’s Royce Hall. For more information, please call (310) 470-2332, or visit www.aysymphony.org.

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