Prom 32: 14th August 2001 – Hollywood’s Golden Age

Elmer Bernstein
The Great Escape
Hollywood and the Stars
Ben Hur – Overture; Parade of the Charioteers
The Adventures of Robin Hood – Old England
Robin Hood and His Merry MenSteiner
Gone with the Wind – Tara’s Theme
A President’s Country
The Ten Commandments
The Red Pony – Morning on the Ranch
Dream March & Circus Music
A Place in the Sun*
Taxi Driver*
The Man with the Golden Arm*
The Magnificent Seven
The Great Escape

John Harle (saxophone)*
BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Elmer Bernstein

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 14 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Rarely – if ever – has the encore come first in a concert. But as he raised his baton (in his left-hand) for his Proms debut, 79-year-old Elmer Bernstein started with one of the most famous of his own compositions, the theme tune to the wartime epic, The Great Escape.

Unbilled in the programme, it at least musically represented the theme for the concert – which, in looking at “Hollywood’s Golden Age”, took the title ’The Great Escape’. As Bernstein himself explained – in his rather English accent (he is married to a Briton, I understand) – the first half was devoted to those European émigrés who fled the Nazis and carved a living in Hollywood.

Thus, Korngold’s Robin Hood, Rózsa’s Ben Hur, Steiner’s Tara’s Theme (Gone with the Wind, the only piece heard at the Proms before) and a self-made medley of Tiomkin’s famous western melodies, fashioned for a TV special about the south-west Texas homeland of the then President, Lyndon B Johnson, hence A President’s Country – High Noon, Red River, Rawhide (violinists strumming strings like guitars), The Alamo, Giant, and Duel in the Sun. This first half was topped and tailed by two of Bernstein’s work – a theme written for a TV series, Hollywood and the Stars, and The Ten Commandments.

The second half looked to composers – like Elmer Bernstein – who were American-born, who took on the mantle of film composition from the émigrés. Copland’s immediately distinctive score to The Red Pony was heard in three excerpts, followed by David Raksin’s Laura, the first of four selections to feature John Harle. Bernstein informed that of the composers represented in this concert only he and Raksin are still alive – he was born in 1912 – and that, through the miracle of modern technology, he would be listening to the broadcast of his new arrangement. Director Otto Preminger gave Raksin a weekend to come up with a sultry, haunting theme after Gershwin’s ’Summertime’ and Ellington’s ’Sophisticated Lady’ had been rejected; thus the famous theme was born, which – when put to words by Johnny Mercer – became a hit, with over 400 cover versions being recorded!

Harle’s pure, subtle tone was as aptly insinuating here as it proved to be acerbic in Waxman’s A Place in the Sun, given in a version which went back to the composer’s original score, not the watered down version demanded by director George Stevens (made by Victor Young and Daniele Amfitheatrof).

Following the roughly chronological tack of the programme, the films represented seemed to get evermore embroiled in gritty realism. Bernard Herrmann’s last score, Taxi Driver, took us to the dirty streets of New York, with Harle’s saxophone sleazily evoking the emotional hollowness of the plot with its jazzy rhythms. Bernstein himself had used the saxophone to represent the morally dubious world of gambling (and drug-taking) depicted in Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, starring Frank Sinatra. Released twenty years before Taxi Driver, Bernstein revelled in big-band jazz with its in-your-face attitude that fitted exactly Preminger’s requirement.

The expanded BBC Concert Orchestra – with its three harps and myriad percussion (what’s the difference between Turangalîla – heard three nights earlier – and film music, I mused? An ondes martenot on the one hand, three harps, timpani and marimba on the other) – revelled in this orgy of sound. I have not heard it play better.

The last scheduled piece is perhaps Bernstein’s calling card, The Magnificent Seven, although the programme page was not wide enough to encompass a complete ’cinemascope’ still from the film, so we could only see a magnificent four and two halves! The packed audience went crazy, Bernstein broke the podium as he came back for one of innumerable curtain calls; he seemed completely unfazed by any potential danger (the front desks of the strings had done a makeshift repair job) when he turned to repeat his opening encore (if you can have such a thing). Here he beamed in appreciation when the audience started clapping – but the real Proms moment came when the theme was whistled by Arena members à la Steve McQueen.

A supremely successful Prom, one can only hope that it’s possible to get Bernstein back. His spoken introductions were informative and brief and he made particular mention of the late Christopher Palmer’s importance to the recent interest in film music, which should be noted.

While I’m not suggesting Nick Kenyon resorts to Hollywood-style dumbing-down tactics by offering us ’The Great Escape 2’ next year, perhaps we could have a focus on the great British film industry and its laudable litany of composers – Arnold (shamefully excluded this year, his 80th-birthday), Auric, Bliss, Rawsthorne and Richard Rodney Bennett, to name just a few. Given Rumon Gamba’s sterling work in Chandos’s on-going series rediscovering these scores, perhaps he could be given a BBC Philharmonic Prom for an Ealing Studio night.

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