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Concert Report: James Horner, A Life in Music

November 11, 2017

Concert Report: James Horner, A Life in Music

It was a concert of mixed feelings. It was very good, occasionally great, but still a long way behind the Vienna concert. It featured music from interesting and unexpected films, but not necessarily the best cues from those scores. It took place in the spectacularly intimate Royal Albert Hall, yet I think the event was missing a personal touch. There was lots to love and admire, but still plenty to criticise.

Report by Pete Simons.

I still miss James Horner’s (musical) voice. Almost daily, in fact. His music was the soundtrack to my youth and continues to be the soundtrack to my life. As much as I admire other composer, and as much and as deeply I love other people’s music, I don’t think I connect to any of it in the same way as I connect to Horner’s music. There is something in his music that resonates very deep within.

So, needless to say, one day in October I travelled down to the glorious Royal Albert Hall in London to see Ludwig Wicki conduct the Cinematic Sinfonia, Crouch End Festival Chorus, and various soloists including Clara Sanabras, Alice Zawadzki and Eric Rigler. It was a great night, make no mistake about it. If this concert goes on tour and comes anywhere near you, do go and see it. However, as I said in the intro and as I’ll explain throughout this report, I did leave the concert with mixed feelings. Allow me to take you through the playlist and provide some after-thoughts.

Act One

Universal Studio Logo

Whilst I love Horner’s theme for Universal, I’m not sure it should be included in a concert. I get that someone probably thought it’d be cool to open with this, but I actually think it feels a little contrived (unless you make it part of a multi-theme suite, rather than a stand-alone cue).

Krull (“Battle in the Swamp”)

What a massively pleasant surprise to see Krull on the playlist; but how odd that they didn’t select a more obvious crowd-pleaser (hello… “Ride of the Firemares”?). The performance was strong and energetic, really showing off Horner’s composing skills. It is still a miracle that he managed to write such a great score for such a phenomenally shit movie, with virtually no money and allegedly battling a flu. Hearing it live was great. It does drive home how dated the CD releases sound; and it would be wonderful if someone would re-record the score. Wishful thinking on my part…

Apollo 13 (“Main Theme”, “Re-Entry and Splashdown”)

I had seen a suite on YouTube that was, quite frankly, atrocious. It was therefore a great relief that this concert did not play that suite, but instead played one that was mostly true to the original material. Having said that, I think the suite was somewhat oddly put together… a sign of things to come really, as the suites turned out to be this concert’s weak points. With Apollo 13, although they played the various bits correctly, the suite didn’t really flow nice for me.

The Rocketeer (“The Flying Circus”)

Now, this brought the house down. No suite, not trying to be clever, just play the track as it is. It’s a phenomenal cue, always has been, and it was so much fun to hear it live. Okay, so we didn’t get that finale, but I think that can be forgiven.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (“Main Title”)

Again a wonderful performance. The percussionists got a few laughs when they started waving fluorescent tubes above their heads, creating a mysterious woozy sound. MovieWave’s James Southall made me chuckle with his report when he addressed these tubes (and the money spent on education), but I’d like to make a point of celebrating the percussionists; one chap in particular who had snares, marimba, tubular bells and a drum kit to play. He spend the evening running from one instrument to the other (which weren’t necessarily placed logically), having to bring his sheet music with him, and often he only just made it on time! That man (I think it’s Ric Elsworth) is a legend in my book.

Legends of the Fall (“The Ludlows”)

You can’t go wrong with this. What a stunner of a cue, beautifully performed. Lush strings, but also that intimate piano at the start and the two violins at the end. Utterly gorgeous stuff.

Aliens (“Main Title”, “Bishop’s Countdown”)

I think this may have been the highlight of the evening for me. It’s great to see Aliens included on the playlist (though I did wonder how many members of the audience might be classical fans wondering what “Gayane’s Ballet” has got to do with any of this). It was performed exquisitely. Even the dark, groaning opening chords were spectacular. The action music of “Bishop’s Countdown”) sounded as fierce and aggressive as you’d hope for. Bravo!

Iris (“Part One”)

Massive shift from Aliens to Iris, and again a wonderful piece that was wonderfully performed. The solo violinist was on-point and the whole cue was just fabulous. I’m glad Iris was on the playlist. It may not seem an obvious choice (because I don’t think the film is that well known), but it lends itself so well to the concert hall. After all, Horner pretty much presented his score as a concert work.

Braveheart (“For the Love of a Princess”, “Freedom – The Execution – Bannockburn”)

Here’s another suite that should shake you to your core, but fell just a tad short of greatness. It’s fabulous music, of course, but I can’t quite work out whether the suite’s arrangement or the performance fell short. In general (and I can’t quite remember whether this included Braveheart) there were a few timing issues between the percussion and the rest of the orchestra. Nothing too major really, but being hypercritical as I am, it did bother me on several occasions.

Act Two

Titanic (“Suite”, Avex edition)

To be honest, I was disappointed; and I don’t understand why they arranged a new suite when Horner himself prepared not one but two himself. The suite that was performed in Vienna a few years ago nearly had me in tears. But this “Avex Edition” did not flow nicely at all and the solo vocal was mixed in a tad too loud causing some distortion. Also, the pairing/harmonising of the vocalist and horn didn’t quite work for me. The performance in itself was fine, but the arrangement was a bit of a mess.

Field of Dreams (“The Place Where Dreams Come True”)

Lovely little cue and a lovely little surprise to see it show up during a concert. Field of Dreams is a bit of a fan favourite, as are several of the other cues during this concert. From that point of view, I have to praise the organisers.

Titanic (“My Heart Will Go On”)

And then oddly we went back to Titanic and that song. It’s baffling that this wasn’t part of the Titanic suite and that Field Of Dreams was shoe-horned in between all of this. Again I thought there was some distortion on the vocals. I think that, regardless of how good the performance was, the sequencing of the concert failed badly here. And whilst I do like the musical side of the song, the lyrics have always bothered me; and after twenty years they sound more cringe-worthy than ever.

A Beautiful Mind (“A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics”)

The second half of the concert turned out to be quite vocalist heavy, and here was the ooh-wah-hoo from A Beautiful Mind. It was very well performed, though possibly the same mic issues as before. What let it down though, was that it was performed way too fast. It felt like they rushed through the cue, which I think was most notable in the vocalist trying to keep up.

An American Tail (“Somewhere Out There”)

One of Horner’s better songs and certainly a pleasure to hear. Personally I didn’t come to the concert to hear songs, but I guess it was somewhat inevitable. Lovely performance.

Glory (“A Call to Arms”)

Well hello! What an absolutely pleasure and honour to hear this live. I wish they played more from this score, but this cue is as good as any. Very well performed; and seeing how this cue descends into controlled chaos towards the end, it can’t have been the easiest cue from the soundtrack. A well deserved ‘bravo’, though the long reverb on the final tubular bell left the audience a bit confused as to whether to start applauding or not…

The Mask of Zorro (“The Ride”)

…and so conductor Wicki didn’t wait for any applause and dived straight into The Mask of Zorro. He should’ve waited though, because if any cue deserved a round of applause it was Glory. As for Zorro… great track, great performance. Not something I would’ve picked, but couldn’t fault it.

Avatar (“Suite”, Avex Edition)

This one, you could and should fault. Now, I’m not so keen on Avatar anyway, but the suite that was performed in Vienna a few years ago (which I sadly only know from YouTube and the BluRay release) was excellent and actually sent shivers down my back. So I was looking forward to this. Alas, the organisers opted for their own suite, which again flowed poorly. It lacked energy, it lacked that other-worldly feel that James Cameron kept boasting about in his video tribute. The choir didn’t even attempt to sing in the Na’vi language and there was no sign of the popular “War” cue. Also, placing this suite so close to Glory only emphasised Horner’s knack for recycling, as a variation on the Glory theme featured heavily in this Avatar suite. It did however have a rousing finale and it included a fair amount of action music that I don’t think is available on the commercial soundtrack release (though it has been a while since I listened to it).

Encore: A Beautiful Mind (“A Kaleidoscope of Mathematics”)

After a standing ovation, Wicki returned to the stage for a single encore … a reprise of A Beautiful Mind. Admittedly, it was a tighter (and thus better) performance than earlier that night, but the question remains: why? You have Horner’s entire body of work to choose from and you opt to simply repeat one of the cues you’ve already played (and not even the best one at that).

Why not Wolf Totem, Horner’s last great symphonic work? Why not The Magnificent Seven, his last unfinished work. Why not the theme from Willow or Cocoon? Heck… even Troy? Or Casper, seeing as Halloween was not far off. Surely blockbuster The Amazing Spiderman? Or the mother of all finales from The Rocketeer. Nope none of that. It was a very good concert, and at times it was great, but I think it could’ve been much better if they added two cues to each act, and replace the current encore with one or two other pieces. You’d only be adding 20-25 minutes to a concert that wasn’t particularly long to begin with. I read that the Michael Giacchino concert, which took place a few days earlier, ran for nearly three hours! Excluding the intermission, I don’t think Horner’s went beyond two.

In between the performances, interviews with frequent collaborators where shown on a large screen that hung over the orchestra. Anyone who knows anything about film music in general or James Horner in particular will have heard nothing new here (except perhaps Horner’s own memory of how Beethoven’s 7th symphony was his ‘light bulb moment’ when he realised he wanted to become a composer). It was the usual chit-chat as to how music accompanies the film; and even then it wasn’t hugely insightful. I’m not sure what sort of audience they were aiming at when they put those videos together, because I doubt it caters for either veteran film music fans or newbies. At least Richard Eyre (director of Iris) admitted to being sceptical of Horner’s idea to use a full orchestra. Both Ron Howard and James Cameron talked about their mutual histories with Roger Corman. Cameron was (surprisingly) witty. “A song for Titanic? Like the one at the end of Schindler’s List?!” And then there was Mel Gibson. Oh dear lord, what has happened to him? Half caveman, half wildebeast, the man clearly knows nothing about music from a technical point of view, but is deeply passionate about it on a emotional level. His mutterings were often cringe-worthy, but they clearly came from the heart. “Music bypasses the brain and goes straight to the heart.” Sure. I don’t fully agree, but I appreciate the sentiment.

During the musical performance, the cinema sized screen showed the posters of the respective films. No fragments or montages. Not even stills from the movies; but a dull slide-show of movie posters. A missed opportunity, I think, whilst appreciating you’d probably find yourself in copyright clearance-hell if you wanted to include actual movie footage. Also, there was no live interaction. No special guests, no speeches, not even conductor Wicki said a word. Again, a missed opportunity. It could’ve been so much more ‘personal’, instead it felt like a production package: music, videos, slideshow,… just press play. I would’ve liked to have heard some more personal stories, maybe see some recording sessions, maybe hear from his peers…. anything a little more personal to celebrate this man. All in all it was very good, sometimes great, but not flawless. And as for James Horner… his voice is still sorely missed.

(c) 2017 Synchrotones

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