Friday, January 6, 2012

A Tribute to Roger Ebert (repost)

This post originally appeared on my previous blog, The Front Row Chicago, on March 1, 2011. I'm posting it again here mainly to help me establish the layout for my new blog, but also because I still like the post (and the music) and I hope people will read it and add their own soundtrack selections in the comments section.

Last Friday night I attended the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "A Tribute to Roger Ebert," part of the CSO's Friday Night at the Movies series. It was a lovely, jubilant tribute to Chicago's favorite film critic. The orchestra played Ebert's favorite theme, Anton Karas' bouncy "The Third Man Theme," for which they brought in a special zither player from Milwaukee; three selections from his favorite film composer (Nino Rota); themes from his favorite film (Citizen Kane), and themes from films featuring his favorite actor (Gregory Peck) and actress (Ingrid Bergman). There was Rota's gorgeous theme from Romeo and Juliet (the 1968 Franco Zefferelli film, my favorite film version), Henry Mancini's classic, jazzy Pink Panther music, and the epic horn music for Ben Hur's "Parade of the Charioteers" scene.

Other highlights:

At one point a large screen showed the opening of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the orchestra played the film's commissioned and completed but never used score by Alex North (Spartacus, The Agony and the Ecstasy). Then they segued into the familiar and ever-inspiring prelude from Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, and finally the "Blue Danube Waltz" by Johann Strauss.

The audience was encouraged to whistle along to the "Colonel Bogey March" from The Bridge on the River Kwai, which they did. And pretty well, too.

After the last announced piece, the theme from Gone With the Wind, there was a long applause, and then conductor Richard Kaufman announced that they had another surprise piece, which turned out to be the theme from E.T. by John Williams. As that one ended Ebert came out on stage with his wife Chaz and waved at everyone and bowed to a boisterous standing ovation. I was very glad to see him, and almost equally glad that those jerks who always spring out of their seats as the music ends so they can "beat the traffic" or whatever missed out on the moment.

Overall it was a lovely and memorable evening: twenty great pieces of film music, a Chicago icon, a relatively relaxed atmosphere, a zither, and some fantastic harmonica playing from one of the orchestra members during the theme for The Sundowners. Moments like that just deepened my appreciation for the CSO: most of these musicians probably never play jazz, but here they were breezing through the "Pink Panther Theme" like it's all they do. And what's more, they manage to make it sound somehow ... stately. As my mom (a CSO veteran) pointed out, everything they played maintained that certain CSO sound: nothing came off as sentimental, even "Moon River" or "As Time Goes By." It wasn't clinical, but professional. Literate. Sophisticated. Even with the semi-relaxed vibe and whistling they approached every piece, from Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" to "That's Entertainment!" the same way: adeptly.

I mean, of course, you'd expect that from one of the world's most renowned orchestras. But I appreciated it because I love film music. As a kid I bought soundtracks to my favorite movies and listened to them endlessly. I was introduced to both classical and rock through the movies. I grew up listening to James Horner and John Williams and Thomas Newman, while my mom played Schubert and Haydn and Mozart, and to me there was never any difference. There still isn't. And it saddens me that there are so few opportunities to hear the music of these composers. Even when those opportunities do arrive, as on Friday night, there's that air of "pops" casualness rather than the usual reverent silence, and Concertmaster Robert Chen takes the night off.

I think if they were alive today a great number of our revered composers would be scoring films. Aaron Copland and Shostakovich did it, and Philip Glass still scores movies while keeping a firm foot in the more 'respectable' classical world. Alex Ross, author of The Rest Is Noise and writer for The New Yorker, has championed film composers and once wrote that Bernard Herrman's Vertigo score "belongs among the great musical works of the century." So I don't know why film scores and themes continue to be so looked down upon. But it's truly disheartening.

However: flipping through the guide for the CSO's 2011/12 season I noticed that in September Riccardo Muti will be conducting Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5." And paired with it: Nino Rota's "Suite from The Leopard." So there's a start. Can James Horner's suite from The Rocketeer be too far behind?

Anyway, for the past few days I've been imaging myself as a famous Chicago film critic, invited to select my own program of movie themes for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform. And so I've arrived at the following list, 17 to Ebert's 20. A mix of excellent music and pure nostalgia. Richard Kaufman, let's do this!
  1. "Fargo, North Dakota" from Fargo by Carter Burwell
  2. "The Strength of the Righteous" from The Untouchables by Ennio Morricone
  3. "Prelude and Rooftop" from Vertigo by Bernard Herrman
  4. "Sarabande" from Handel's Keyboard suite in D minor, as arranged by Stanley Kubrick and Leonard Rosenman for Barry Lyndon
  5. "Open Spaces" and "Future Prospects" from There Will Be Blood by Johnny Greenwood 
  6. "Prologue" from In Bruges by Carter Burwell
  7. "100,000 People" from The Fog of War by Philip Glass
  8. "The Batman Theme" from Batman by Danny Elfman
  9. Main Titles (MP3 link) from The Spanish Prisoner by Carter Burwell
  10. Opening Theme from Exotica by Mychael Danna
  11. "Opening Titles" from Miller's Crossing by Carter Burwell
  12. "Main Title/Takeoff" from The Rocketeer by James Horner
  13. "Florence Sur Lens Champs-Elysées" by Miles Davis from Elevator to the Gallows
  14. "Main Theme" from True Romance by Hans Zimmer (a variation on Carl Orff's "Gassenhauer")
  15. "Suite punta del Este" by Astor Piazzolla, used in 12 Monkeys
  16. "Love Theme from Chinatown" from Chinatown by Jerry Goldsmith
  17. "Finale and End Credits" from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade by John Williams
* Excluded because they involve too vocals or other instruments not generally used by a symphony orchestra: Angelo Badalamenti's themes for Twin Peaks; Terence Blanchard's haunting score for 25th Hour; Wendy Carlos' Moog-adapted Beethoven for A Clockwork Orange; Goran Bregović's mesmerizing music for Arizona Dream; and Danny Elfman's choir of children from Edward Scissorhands.

* Excluded because they just go without saying: The Godfather, Psycho, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and Taxi Driver.

You may notice that nearly one third of those tracks are by Carter Burwell. Yes, he's my favorite. And I didn't even add his score for Being John Malkovich

And what would be your choices?

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