National Symphony Soundtracks – Leonard Slatkin rolls the credits

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

Usually, I have used this space to speak of matters related to concerts or recordings I do with the BBC Symphony. But every so often, it is interesting to note some other important events. One such takes place over the next two weeks. If you think the Turnage weekend here is busy, wait until you hear what is going on in Washington, DC.

As most of you probably know, I come from a family of musicians, all of whom had lives as concert artists as well as occupying positions in the studios of both 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers. For several years now, I have wanted to do something that would focus attention on the serious nature of music and film. To that end, we are doing a festival with the National Symphony Orchestra that addresses many of the questions that often arise with the presentation of music for the movies.

John Williams is my co director and both he and I will conduct and moderate as the festival goes on. It begins on Thursday, 23 January, with a program that salutes John’s contributions to both the concert hall and his collaborations with Steven Spielberg. I do not think it is at all inappropriate to compare this relationship with, say, that of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. When two artists work together on a number of projects, they develop a symbiotic relationship. In this case, John will even speak of the time that Spielberg re-shot parts of “E.T.” to fit the music.

The next evening we will share the podium for classic scores from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Each of our concerts will be followed by a discussion. In this case, we will focus on the horrors of the McCarthy commission and, thus, put a Washington connection to the film industry.

On Saturday, we will attempt something that has never been done live before. A literal history of how music has been made to fit the films. From silents, to streamers and punch codes, to today’s click tracks, the audience will be privy to the secrets of how the composer works in this medium. John confided to me that he has never scored a cartoon, because he says this is the most difficult of all the compositions for the cinema. However, he will do one for this evening.

The following week we look at some European contributions. I’ll bet that most of you do not know that the first film score composed by a composer of repute was by Saint-Saëns in 1908. We will perform that along with works by Honegger, Shostakovich and Walton – Henry V. The latter will be with Sam West and it is the complete Christopher Palmer version, not the truncated one we did at the Last Night of the Proms.

There has always been a fascination with Fritz Lang’s immortal 1927 “Metropolis”. There are no fewer than seven versions of the film and even more attempts to score it. For our performances, a new track will be played live. This one uses Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – since my parents (part of the Hollywood Quartet) made a legendary recording of Schoenberg’s sextet, it is quite hard to stray from that interpretation! – and Two Chamber Symphonies along with a short extract from Grieg’s Holberg Suite and the first two String Quartets of Bartók. It was common practice to set silent films to existing material and this will probably be the most difficult of the concerts, as we must adjust how we play these pieces to the film. All of the extracts take certain portions of the music and are timed to fit the film. We go back and forth from one piece to the other. It is all written out, like a symphonic poem. We never play a piece in its entirety, just long extracts. There are a few moments when there is a one- or two-second pause but, for the most part, the music just keeps going and I have to follow a stopwatch to synchronize with the film.

In addition, there are a number of ancillary events, film screenings and chamber music by some of the composers represented. All in all, it is quite an undertaking but one during which I hope people will come away with a greater understanding of the art of the film composer.

I wish you could come but, happily for us, all the concerts are sold out. Perhaps it is an idea that my colleagues here in London would be interested in. Do not send the letters to me!

  • ”Soundtracks Music and Film” runs from January 23-February 1 in Kennedy Center Concert Hall
  • National Symphony

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