Few film composers have left such a legacy of music as John Barry. With over a hundred scores, five Academy Awards, four Grammys and a BAFTA he was much decorated and enormously popular. He could write across a range of genres from James Bond films (eleven of them) to comedies and epic westerns. His early pop success with the John Barry Seven led to scoring his first film, Beat Girl (with Adam Faith). His trademark style was a mixture of dynamic brass, slinky jazz, rousing military cadences and evocative sweeping string melodies. His influences are eclectic and include Chet Baker, Stan Kenton and Carl Orff, as well as Eric Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner.
The Philharmonia Orchestra presented a varied and wide-ranging selection of Barry’s work with Nicholas Dodd (who has conducted for five Bond films). There were no accompanying visuals but Robert Lindsay introduced the selections with the occasional droll comment.
After his sensational arrangements of Monty Norman’s music for Dr No, Barry became the Bond producers’ composer of choice and an indelible part of the film’s success. His score for Goldfinger became the archetypal Bond theme as well as Barry’s most-famous piece. Even without Shirley Bassey, the Philharmonia delivered it with brassy panache. It’s a shame that more of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t played as it is a dazzling score. Nevertheless, there were rarities including the attractive Moviola, which was jettisoned from The Prince of Tides, and the introspective and touching Somewhere in Time.
Barry could always provide scale and polish as well as intimacy and melancholy. The Philharmonia caught the forbidding quality of the bold rhythms from Zulu, and in Dances With Wolves Barry evokes the grandeur of the American West as well as rolling wagons, buffalo hunts and military attacks. This was all beautifully played and one was aware of Barry’s debt to English pastoralism as well as Mahler.
Some of these qualities – a grand counterpoint of strings with brass – are present in Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack’s nostalgic adaptation of Karen Blixen’s tale of running a coffee plantation in Kenya. Barry won an Oscar and its soaring melodies serve to bind the two main characters (played by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford) together when their very different acting styles suggest the opposite.
Barry won Oscars for both original score and song with Born Free. It can seem mawkish but Dodd led a tasteful and restrained reading with a notable emphasis on exceptional cellos and double basses. Barry could also do comedy – Dodd brought out the pathos in Chaplin, directed by Richard Attenborough, with its references to Chaplin’s own ‘Smile’ and also caught the larkiness of Barry’s 1960s’ jazz score for Richard Lester’s The Knack.
The Philharmonia was committed throughout and suitably energised by Dodd, with some notable solos. Fabrizio Falasca provided a tender violin solo for Mary, Queen of Scots and Elsa Bradley’s cimbalom dominated the theme for the TV series The Persuaders (Roger Moore and Tony Curtis). Philip Achille’s harmonica was unsentimental in the forlorn instrumental track from Midnight Cowboy. Best of all was Nick Moss’s sleazy saxophone, accompanied by chilling strings, from Body Heat. Barry’s louche instrumentation for this underrated neo-noir directed by Lawrence Kasdan is some of his most effective music.
The evening ended with the James Bond Suite drawn from five Bond films. Mike Smith’s drum-kit and Andy Pask’s bass guitar were to the fore and there was copious percussion. The strings were full-bodied in From Russia With Love and there was unrestrained brass. It encapsulated the John Barry sound at its most characteristic with rock ‘n’ roll, big band swing and romanticism all jostling for position in a hard-driving mix. Barry may not have been especially subtle but he had an innate feeling for what worked in the cinema.