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March 1, 2018
Oscar in Concert
Motion Picture Academy joins L.A. Phil in tribute to film music past, present and future by Jon Burlingame

Michael Giacchino with conductor Thomas Wilkins and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Michael Giacchino with conductor Thomas Wilkins and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Photo by Paul Hebert/©A.M.P.A.S.

LOS ANGELES—Wednesday night's Oscar concert must qualify as one of the most unusual nights of music ever presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Imagine film music by 22 different composers, spanning 79 years of movie history, played by this world-class orchestra with four different conductors – augmented by such offbeat instruments as accordion, mandolin, sitar, erhu and synthesizers – and performed while imagery from many films was projected on a screen above. The content ranged from classically symphonic to jazz to hybrid orchestra-with-electronics, and each piece was introduced by a major actor or director.

This was the second Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences-sponsored concert of Oscar-nominated music prior to the annual ceremony (the other was in 2014) but the first to be performed by the Philharmonic at Disney Hall. It consisted not only of excerpts from all five of this year's nominated scores but also suites from great movie music of the past.

(From left) Benjamin Wallfisch, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, Charles Bernstein, John Williams, Michael Abels, Laura Karpman, Michael Giacchino, Carter Burwell, A.R. Rahman, and Thomas Wilkins.

(From left) Benjamin Wallfisch, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, Charles Bernstein, John Williams, Michael Abels, Laura Karpman, Michael Giacchino, Carter Burwell, A.R. Rahman, and Thomas Wilkins.
Photo by Paul Hebert/©A.M.P.A.S.

Academy music-branch governor Michael Giacchino opened the event by play-acting as a director who couldn't make up his mind about the right musical approach for a scene. In this case it happened to be Giacchino's Oscar-winning music for Disney-Pixar's 2009 Up, and conductor Thomas Wilkins played the part of the frustrated composer who modified his score twice – thus demonstrating three different ways that the scene (in which Carl's house becomes airborne) could be enhanced by music.

At 13 minutes, this segment was a little long but helped the audience understand the challenges that a film composer faces on a regular basis.

The remainder of the concert's first half consisted of five suites, each featuring music from three or four films, and each built around a different literary theme. Indian composer A.R. Rahman introduced the first, "The Sound of Home," which had music by Rachel Portman (Nicholas Nickleby, 2002), Nino Rota (Amarcord, 1973) and Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008).

"Home is often not a place, but a state of mind," Rahman said, and the variety of clips (from The Color Purple and Dances With Wolves to The Sound of Music) illustrated this nicely. Throughout the concert, both the music and the clips emphasized inclusiveness, especially of women and people of color. As another Academy music-branch governor, Laura Karpman, noted later in the concert, their vision is one of "a future of increasing diversity and equality of opportunity."

Chilean actress Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman) introduced the second suite, "The Sound of Love," including Oscar-winning music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938), Luis Bacalov (Il Postino, 1994) and Tan Dun (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000). Clips ranged from West Side Story and Casablanca to The English Patient and An American in Paris.

A third Academy governor, Charles Bernstein, introduced Get Out composer Michael Abels, an appropriate choice for "The Sound of Fear," including music by Mica Levi (Jackie, 2016), Quincy Jones (In Cold Blood, 1967), John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978) and John Williams (The Witches of Eastwick, 1987). This clip montage was especially fun, and it was extraordinary to hear eight percussionists banging out Jones' Oscar-nominated, jazz-meets-classical score – believed to be its live-performance debut – against clips that ranged from Jaws and Psycho to Rebecca and The Shining.

"The Sound of the Chase" was introduced by actress Michelle Rodriguez (The Fast and the Furious), who in turn introduced composer Lalo Schifrin, whose music from the 1968 classic Bullitt was the centerpiece of the suite; Dave Grusin (The Firm, 1993) and Jerry Goldsmith (The Great Train Robbery, 1978) were also featured. Clips showcased several classics of the genre including The French Connection, North by Northwest and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Terence Blanchard

Terence Blanchard solos from Malcolm X.
Photo by Paul Hebert/©A.M.P.A.S.

Director Ava DuVernay (Selma) introduced the final suite, "The Sound of Courage," which was bookended by composer Terence Blanchard soloing on trumpet in his own jazzy, soulful music from the 1992 film Malcolm X; music by Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away, 2001) and Alex North (Spartacus, 1960) was also included. This clip package may have been the most impressive of all, reminding us how often the theme of courage has played out in memorable movies, from To Kill a Mockingbird, Gandhi and Patton to Milk, Gladiator and Apollo 13.

The second half consisted entirely of excerpts from this year's score nominees. Directors Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) introduced their composers via video, while Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water), Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) and Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) appeared in person.

Carter Burwell conducts music from <i>Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri</i>

Carter Burwell conducts music from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Photo by Paul Hebert/©A.M.P.A.S.

Alexandre Desplat conducts his music from <i>The Shape of Water</i>.

Alexandre Desplat conducts his music from The Shape of Water.
Photo by Paul Hebert/©A.M.P.A.S.

Burwell conducted his melancholy, guitar-and-mandolin flavored music for Three Billboards, with the last-minute addition of soprano soloist Liv Redpath performing the 19th-century Irish song "The Last Rose of Summer," which figures into the music of the film. Alexandre Desplat not only conducted but whistled the key melody in The Shape of Water, with Nick Ariondo adding colorful accordion accompaniment. Del Toro, in his introduction, noted that Desplat's music provided the voice for the film's two primary characters, both mute.

Wilkins conducted the string-rich, romantic-piano piece "House of Woodcock" from Phantom Thread (composer Jonny Greenwood was the only absentee among the nominees). Director Anderson said he asked Greenwood to "write some music like Nelson Riddle" even though he knew Greenwood would prefer to write something "atonal and depressing."

The evening's biggest cheers were saved for 86-year-old John Williams, who conducted a spirited "The Rebellion Is Reborn" from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Director Johnson, trying hard not to overpraise the legendary composer, said "he works like a little kid sprinting toward the playground, because that's where the toys are."

John Williams receives standing ovation.

John Williams receives standing ovation.
Photo by Paul Hebert/©A.M.P.A.S.

Nolan's introduction to Hans Zimmer's Dunkirk was important for the audience to hear, as he explained how vital was to have "music and sound effects all together in perfect harmony." With Zimmer and his collaborator Benjamin Wallfisch playing electronic keyboards at the back of the orchestra, Wilkins conducted their dark and grinding sounds, building and ever-rising until finally integrating an excerpt from Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations."

©2018 Jon Burlingame
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