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October 26, 2009
Composer Stu Phillips in Concert
Galactica, Knight Rider scorer leads Golden State Pops Orchestra by Jon Burlingame

Stu Phillips

SAN PEDRO, Calif.—The Golden State Pops Orchestra honored Stu Phillips – composer of the original Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider and other classic TV series – Saturday night, Oct. 24, at the Warner Grand Theatre.

Phillips, looking at least 20 years younger than his 80 years of age, proved an energetic conductor, putting the 62-member GSPO through its paces on three suites, totaling 18 minutes, from the 1978-79 Galactica series; an eight-minute suite from his 1979-81 series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century; and, fitting for the concert's Halloween "Fright Night" theme, six minutes from his obscure 1968 horror film The Name of the Game Is Kill.

Phillips is a Grammy-nominated composer, arranger and producer whose resume includes producing hits like "Blue Moon," "Johnny Angel" and "Goodbye Cruel World"; scoring such 1960s comedy classics as The Donna Reed Show and The Monkees; and music for such dramatic shows as Switch, Quincy and The Fall Guy during the 1970s and '80s. His recent book, Stu Who?, is a candid chronicle of his 40 years in the music, film and TV business.

Conductor Steven Allen Fox opened the show with music from Jerry Goldsmith's Star Trek: First Contact. A new piece, John Ottman's alternately charming and heroic music from Astro Boy (which opened in theaters the day before), was conducted by its arranger-orchestrator, Jason Livesay.

The surprise of the concert was Phillips' Variations for Piano and Orchestra, a complex and beautiful piece that deserves to be heard again. Fox conducted the premiere of this 22-minute work that reminds the listener of the composer's classical and jazz influences, sensitively played by piano soloist Robert Theis and the orchestra.

Battlestar Galactica, old and new, dominated the second half. During a pre-concert talk, Phillips reminisced about creator-producer Glen A. Larson – in his earlier life as a member of the singing Four Preps – working for him when he was a record producer at Capitol. A decade later, the situation was reversed when Larson became Phillips' boss as composer of multiple shows at Universal and 20th Century-Fox.

Phillips conducted three Galactica suites. The first combined the dramatic prologue and the "Exploration" music that hinted at ancient civilizations, and the series theme by Larson and Phillips. The second drew on music from the episodes "War of the Gods" and "Lost Planet of the Gods," adding wordless women's voices for an ethereal, spiritual quality. The final suite combined furious action music for the Viper ships and Cylon battles with the thrilling finale music, bringing the audience to its feet.

The Buck Rogers music was, the composer remarked, inspired by Larson's idea that the show should be "James Bond in space." Multiple thematic ideas representing Buck, his girlfriend Wilma, the pilot's exotic Princess Ardala, the robot Twiki, and other characters, were suggested in entertaining ways.

Bear McCreary, composer of the acclaimed new Battlestar Galactica series, conducted an 11-minute piece titled "Colonial Anthem Variations," featuring three of his key players on the original scores: guitarist Steve Bartek, duduk and bansuri player Chris Bleth and percussionist M.B. Gordy.

As McCreary pointed out during the pre-concert talk, he found a way during the second season to allude to Phillips' original Galactica theme: it became the "national anthem" of the Colonies fleeing the Cylons and searching for Earth. Eventually, and subtly, McCreary made Phillips "the Beethoven of the Colonies" by referring to his music whenever appropriate. Phillips' original BG theme was heard at the end of the series when viewers saw the fleet for the last time.

Phillips in younger years conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Phillips in younger years conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic

McCreary's music – alternately mysterious, moody and powerful – offered contemporary variations on Phillips' iconic themes. When Phillips returned to the stage for the finale, he paid tribute to the young composer by saying, "I think that the future of TV and film music is in good hands."

For encores, Fox and the orchestra performed Mark Snow's theme for The X-Files and Phillips' 1982 theme for Knight Rider, one of the first all-electronic themes for TV (but played live by the GSPO).

Everyone in the orchestra dressed in costume for the show (including five French horn players, all in Starfleet uniforms). Concertmaster Paul Henning arrived as Dracula, and conductor Fox was in Star Trek garb as well, all adding to the fun of the evening.

©2009 Jon Burlingame
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