Hollywood Soundstage

Hollywood Soundstage

English conductor John Wilson is the Mr. Hollywood of the classical industry, in recent years releasing a string of albums examining the golden era of the all-singing, all-dancing MGM movie musical. At first glance, Hollywood Soundstage, featuring film music by legendary soundtrack composers such as Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, and Max Steiner, might appear to be more of the same. It is, however, a fresh departure. “It’s the first album I’ve ever made of film music by itself,” Wilson tells Apple Music, “as opposed to songs or restorations of song-and-dance routines from MGM movies.” Wilson admits to being “by no means a specialist” in film music and got his early whiff of greasepaint from other sources. “I grew up doing amateur Gilbert & Sullivan productions, as well as musical comedies and operettas,” he reveals. “Film came later.” Hollywood Soundstage pays specific homage not just to composers who wrote great music for the movies, but also to the highly talented individuals behind the scenes—conductors, arrangers, copyists, orchestrators—who made the finished product possible. “It’s a nod to the studio music departments of Hollywood, in the days when every studio had its own music department,” says Wilson. And although he is classically trained as a musician, Wilson dislikes the boundaries that are often placed between classical compositions and the best of movie music. “If something’s good and catches my imagination, and I feel that I can do the music justice, then it will enter my repertoire.” All of the pieces on Hollywood Soundstage pass the Wilson test with flying colors. The album takes a special place in his wide-ranging discography with Chandos, which includes acclaimed recordings of Copland, Dutilleux, Ravel, and Respighi. “Movie music is just a part of what I do—my dessert, if you like,” he says. “But I take dessert very seriously!” Read on, as John Wilson guides us through each piece on Hollywood Soundstage. Overture from “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (Erich Korngold) “Made in 1939, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex starred Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. The soaring violin theme at the start is archetypal Korngold. For years, people said that Korngold’s music sounded like Hollywood, but André Previn made the point that the opposite is the case—Hollywood sounded like Korngold. He didn’t change anything in his compositional style when he arrived from Vienna. It just so happened that his melodic, highly colorful, late-Romantic idiom was exactly what the movies needed. Within a very short space of time, Korngold was the most admired and imitated composer in Hollywood.” Theme from “Laura” (David Raksin) “Director Otto Preminger’s Laura dates from 1944 and is a film noir murder mystery. It has all sorts of highly detailed orchestration, very subtle textures that change within a heartbeat. It also happens to have a killer tune, as was the emerging fashion in Hollywood at the time—to make a theme tune or a theme song out of a movie. The song “Laura” made Raksin a fortune. But he was a composer of the most serious mindset. Like the other composers on this album, he aimed to intensify and heighten the dramatic or comedic aspects of a film, or to say what couldn’t be said with dialogue.” Suite from “The Wizard of Oz” (Herbert Stothart/Harold Arlen) “MGM’s movie of L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wizard of Oz was made in 1939 and is a classic of American cinema. Harold Arlen wrote the songs, and actually had to fight to keep “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the movie—they thought it held up the action and were going to cut it. This suite is by Herbert Stothart, based on Arlen’s tunes and some of his own themes. It basically tells the story of the picture in 11 minutes, via the background incidental music.” Transylvanian March and Embassy Waltz from “My Fair Lady” (Frederick Loewe) “Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison starred in director George Cukor’s adaptation of the hit musical My Fair Lady. André Previn was music director of the movie, which won 1964’s Best Picture Oscar. He worked with his music staff to make sure that the spirit of the original Broadway show was preserved and subtly enhanced for the big screen. The waltz music in the movie has got one foot in Vienna and one in New York. It taps into the tradition of American operetta—composers like Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg—and brings it kicking and screaming into the 20th century.” Suite from “Now, Voyager” (Max Steiner) “Now, Voyager was released in 1942 and was another Bette Davis vehicle. I made this suite of music from the film myself. I think this is the high point of Steiner’s art as a composer, using his tried-and-trusted Wagnerian leitmotif method, where every character is assigned some musical material, and every time they appear onscreen, the material appears with them. It’s a highly effective tool at unifying a motion picture, and in Now, Voyager Steiner is writing at the top of his game, with some of his most inspired music.” Main Title from “The Sandpiper” (Johnny Mandel) “Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the box-office draws in director Vincente Minnelli’s 1965 movie, The Sandpiper. The wonderful trumpet solo on this track is played by Michael Lovatt, a long-standing colleague of mine who understands Mandel’s idiom perfectly. This is a good example of the main musical theme of a film being extracted, then somebody adds lyrics, and it becomes an enormous hit—in this case, the song “The Shadow of Your Smile.” The film companies often had publishing rights to the music of their films, and this was one way of exploiting those rights financially.” Suite from “Rebecca” (Franz Waxman) “Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller Rebecca starred Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, and won the Best Picture Oscar in 1940. Waxman’s score for Rebecca is so concise and concentrated dramatically, and the music has a very important role to play in the film. It’s a different soundworld to anything else Waxman ever wrote—for example, he used a mysterious instrument called a novachord [an early synthesizer] in the music, which is hard to find nowadays. We had to cobble together our own 21st-century version of a novachord, but to preserve the mystery for the listener, I’m not going to give away how we did it!” Street Scene from “How to Marry a Millionaire” (Alfred Newman) “Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall all starred in the 1953 romantic comedy How to Marry a Millionaire. Alfred Newman was the music director for about 600 films, mostly with 20th Century Fox, where he had the greatest orchestra that’s ever been assembled. How to Marry a Millionaire is set in Manhattan in the 1950s, and it’s pretty clear that Newman used George Gershwin as the model for the music—it was Gershwin’s sound which encapsulated the urban life of his time. Newman had used the music for Street Scene in several films before because he knew it was effective. It reaches its full glory in How to Marry a Millionaire.”

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