Elmer Bernstein: This Is Your Life

The Ten Commandments
To Kill A Mockingbird
Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra [UK premiere]
Ondine at the Cinema – Themes for ondes martenot and orchestra [World premiere]
Kings of the Sun [UK premiere]
Far From Heaven [World premiere]
The Man with the Golden Arm
Walk on the Wild Side
The Magnificent Seven

Christopher Parkening (guitar)

Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Elmer Bernstein

Reviewed by: Robert Seeley

Reviewed: 9 October, 2002
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

In the company of old friends and his many fans, famed film composer Elmer Bernstein celebrated his 80th-birthday with a personal selection of some timeless masterworks and several intriguing premieres – all displayed the versatility and melodic flair that has made him a master of his profession for over 50 years.

The Ten Commandments (1956), Bernstein’s first major Hollywood assignment, made an effective curtain-raiser. It remains his most fertile and opulent score, though the lifeless, cavernous acoustic of the RAH had us believe otherwise; the impressive opening statement for massed horns sounding more flatulent than burnished. The balance improved, temporarily, with a delicately measured performance of To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), justifiably one of the composer’s own favourites. This warm and haunting slice of Americana, graced by sensitive contributions from flautist Philippa Davies and the RPO’s radiant string section, was one of the concert’s highlights.

The first half concluded with the UK unveiling of the compact Guitar Concerto. Commissioned by Christopher Parkening, its bracing, sun-kissed Mediterranean palette inevitably brings to mind Rodrigo, Ravel and Falla, though the big tunes are recognisably vintage Elmer. After the conductor left the podium, Parkening paid his own tribute to the composer with a solo performance of a virtuosic, if perhaps incongruous, piece by a composer whose name I’m afraid I couldn’t quite catch.

Ondine at the Cinema opened the second half. This succinct and rather attractive compendium of largely unfamiliar themes featured the unique sonority of the ondes martenot, played by Bernstein’s regular exponent of the instrument, Cynthia Millar.

The box-office dud, Kings of the Sun (1963), holds some interest not only as one of the few Hollywood epics to be set in the ancient world of the Mayans, but also as one of the composer’s most oft-requested scores. During his many brief but charming asides to the audience, Bernstein confessed being baffled by its popularity, but with its exotic percussion and primitive rhythmic drive, its appeal is easy to understand.

Remarkably, despite reaching such a grand age, the silver-haired composer is still scoring films. His most recent, Far From Heaven (2002), was the second of tonight’s world premieres. This piano-led and unashamedly romantic score would have slotted quite comfortably into one of the lush Douglas Sirk dramas to which the as-yet-unreleased film pays homage, and it blossomed beautifully here.

Following the statement, “The rest of the programme needs no further comment from me,” the RPO let rip with explosive versions of the searing jazz theme from The Man with the Golden Arm (1956) and the sassy Walk on the Wild Side (1962), complete with punchy trumpet obbligato and a suitably strident brass section.

The concert concluded with the instantly memorable The Magnificent Seven (1960) topped by a welcome encore of the sprightly and equally dextrous march from The Great Escape (1963). Bernstein was obviously enjoying himself during this trip down memory lane. However, the evening and the journey were far from over, for the affectionate cheers that greeted the composer as he took his final bows increased twofold as onto the stage strode Michael Aspel, clutching a red book and uttering those immortal words, “Elmer Bernstein, this is your life!”

After serving Hollywood and movie-goers so richly for over half a century, it was fitting that the evening should be transformed into a rather more emotional celebration than either composer or audience had anticipated.

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