I recently had the pleasure of attending an evening of theme music from the movies—mostly classic films—performed by the Springfield (Massachusetts) Symphony Orchestra, which is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary. My thanks for the comp ticket to my friend Shera Cohen, whose company, In the Spotlight, reviews the arts in western New England.
Fans of classic films are usually extraordinarily well informed about pretty much every facet of filmmaking in the studio era, and the music—whether a sweeping theme or even incidental background music—is as important to them as a favorite actor or director. Unlike other elements of film, rather than intellectual analysis, the music evokes a purely emotional response.
So it was at Springfield Symphony Hall and “Music Night with Maestro Rhodes.” Along the same lines as big-screen showings of classic films, this evening brought out not only symphony regulars, but clearly an enthusiastic audience who recognized the film scores.
Maestro Kevin Rhodes conducted and also interspersed between the selections a bit of background information on the composers. His style of presentation was breezy, lighthearted, and quite funny at times. When he introduced composer Alex North’s “Prelude” from Cleopatra (1963), he remarked of its suggestion of an exotic ancient world—and Elizabeth Taylor’s presence— “You can just see the blue eyeshadow when you hear this one.”
Other composers included Alfred Newman, who was represented not only by his music from Street Scene of 1931 (which found its way into other films), but the familiar “20th Century-Fox Fanfare,” which was a delightfully whimsical way to begin the show.
Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. fanfare, and theme from Gone with the Wind (1939)—of course—and Casablanca (1942) were favorites. The latter was especially stirring for its intricate suggestion of Moroccan intrigue and the sudden swell of “La Marseillaise.”
Works from greats Bernard Hermann, Elmer Bernstein (the theme from The Magnificent Seven tends to raise people out of their seats by at least a foot, and his “Suite” from The Ten Commandments of 1956 concluded the program), and Miklos Rozsa—the percussionist’s lengthy solo on the chimes in the “Prelude” from Ben Hur (1959) is something I’ll remember the next time I see the film. Likewise, the kettle drums from the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and a light sensation of dancing on the tambourine in Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) kept our attention on the percussionists, whose effort we can see more vividly perhaps than the player of a woodwind instrument. There’s a certain gallant dash about smashing a couple cymbals together.
Films from later decades included the “Love Theme” from The Godfather (1972), Titanic (1997)—which included a stunningly haunting refrain from the women of the Symphony Chorus first from up in the loge and then on stage (I had no idea the Irish penny whistle ever made its way into a symphony orchestra), and other modern hits, but probably the most charming was when the maestro played a piano solo of the “Ragtime Medley” from The Sting (1973) and then joined by a single clarinet, piccolo, trombone, and tuba to playfully embroider the delicate ragtime theme. They were brought out to the apron of the stage as if to delightfully demonstrate that only these handful of musicians were required despite the complexity of the arrangement. They belonged on a gazebo in a park in summer.
It was an evening of tribute to these composers whose majestic music is so part and parcel of the films that one cannot be thought of without the other. Watching people make the already fondly familiar music in front of you makes the experience still more intimate.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.