Concert Review: The Best of Elmer Bernstein

Peter Bernstein conducted the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra on June 18th.

June 18, 2017 was the hottest day ever recorded in London, 37.4 degrees Celsius at London Heathrow. However, the temperature inside the Albert Hall was fortunately much cooler and very pleasant. The audience was an interesting mix of film and film music enthusiasts, and general music lovers. The evening’s program was made up of the well-known and not so well-known of Elmer Bernstein’s film scores. (It is interesting to note at this stage that there were program variations between Wednesday’s Dublin concert and Sunday’s London event.) A more obscure piece for anyone living on this side of “the pond” opened the show: the title theme from the National Geographic television series. However, it was an impressive, stirring opening to a stunning concert.

Throughout the evening, host John Landis related interesting stories and anecdotes about Bernstein’s career. We were told of Bernstein’s brief blacklisting in the ’50s during the terrible period of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Fortunately, his career was saved when Cecil B. DeMille took a great liking to him and managed to “pull a few strings” through his powerful contacts at the FBI. Ultimately, DeMille asked Bernstein to score his epic The Ten Commandments. Bernstein’s briefing from DeMille was, “I want you to do for Egyptian music what Puccini did for Japanese music.” Well, enough said! The Ten Commandments suite was extremely impressive, and the sound from the orchestra was startling. The percussionists had their work cut out for them, dashing from one instrument to the next, adding greatly to the amazing sound quality and balance.

The main title theme from Hawaii also utilized many percussive instruments to create the Polynesian feeling from this 1966 drama; the beautiful melody sounded wonderful being played by the orchestra’s large string section. Next came the theme from the early ’60s TV series Hollywood and the Stars. This is one of my favorite all time TV themes. Okay, so that shows my age, but many episodes of this well-made and informative documentary series, narrated by Joseph Cotten, can be now viewed on YouTube. The reason I like the theme is that it manages to capture and sum up the feeling of the early days of Hollywood, and really pulls at your heartstrings. For me, it was especially nice hearing this piece played “live,” compared to listening to recordings on LP and CD.

This was followed by the groundbreaking jazz score from The Man With the Golden Arm, which comes to life while played by talented musicians who seem to be able to swing effortlessly from orchestral stylings to jazz. This was one of the highlights of the concert, and resulted in thunderous applause from the appreciative audience. A complete change of mood followed with a piece from one of Bernstein’s more intimate scores, To Kill a Mockingbird. Here we were treated to a full suite, and reminded just how delicate and moving the music is—written from the perspective of two young children caught up in an atmosphere of violence and racial hatred in America’s Deep South. Many themes were included in this wonderful suite, and audience members were visibly moved by the powerful feelings this music conveyed.

The first half of the program ended with a suite from The Magnificent Seven. Again, a suite adds so much to illustrate the essence of the film, beyond the main theme alone. We hear the various motifis from this outstanding John Sturges western, casting our minds back to the famous scenes with Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach and Steve McQueen.

The second half of the concert contained pieces that were fairly unfamiliar, even to many film music fans. However, it opened with a new arrangement of the theme from Walk on the Wild Side. Whomever I talk to about this film, the comments are focused on the music and the memorable Saul Bass title sequence featuring the black cat walking across the screen. This was an impressive opening piece, played well by the RPCO. Several less familiar scores followed, beginning with a suite from From the Terrace. Then, after an informative introduction by Landis (the director of the film) came the end title music from the comedy Three Amigos. Landis wanted the score to include styles common to Bernstein’s westerns. It was a good “fun” piece, and no doubt enjoyed by many Bernstein fans who had probably never heard this piece played live.

The style changed from crazy western comedy to a 19th century love story with the waltz and end title music from Age of Innocence. This is such a lovely score, and recalled the delicate pictures of lace used as a background in the Saul and Elaine Bass titles. This was also a new arrangement, and the orchestral sound was exquisite. Again, there was a sudden change of mood, this time from comedy to horror, with the premiere of a suite from the Landis film An American Werewolf in London. This selection is of particular interest as the suite includes music written for the werewolf transformation sequence, which was dropped from the final cut in favor of Sam Cooke singing “Blue Moon,” as was Landis’ original intention. The star of the film, Jenny Agutter, was also present at the concert, watching from one of the Loggia boxes.

The last piece from the printed program was the premiere suite from The Great Escape. Although it very much captured the essence of this great John Sturges POW drama, I was somewhat disappointed by its short length. The major themes were all included, but many of them lasted for just a few seconds. Perhaps I put my disappointment down to being so familiar with the full tracks from the original soundtrack album. However, the suite ended with the recognizable bars of the main titles, which have been used in more recent years as a football anthem and in various TV ads. This is likely the most familiar Bernstein theme for many people, and it certainly showed in the thunderous applause it received.

Although The Great Escape concluded the official program, Peter Bernstein was not allowed to leave so soon. The applause didn’t stop, and he returned to treat us to an encore: the theme from the 1957 Burt Lancaster/Tony Curtis film The Sweet Smell of Success. This was a fitting piece to end the concert, one familiar to Bernstein fans despite the film being very rarely shown on British TV.

In all, it was a very enjoyable and memorable evening. It was nice to hear Peter Bernstein talking about his father’s work, and also to see him conducting the orchestra with such flair and confidence. I hope he will return to lead further concerts in the U.K. There was also a huge contribution by Landis, who is actually an old school pal of Peter. (In the early ’60s, Elmer took the young teenagers, Peter and John, to see the Beatles perform at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.) I offer my thanks to everyone who contributed to producing such a wonderful evening.

Reprint courtesty of Film Score Monthly


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