CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Music makes movies work. Imagine the opening of Spielberg's "Jaws" with the music from "Beaches," instead of John Williams' menacing shark rumble and thump. Not quite so scary is it?
The West Virginia Symphony wanted to do a best of movies' music for its pops series, so it let the audience vote on the compositions in categories ranging from drama to science fiction to comedy to fantasy to Westerns. Starting Friday night at the Clay Center (and continuing tonight), it revealed the winners in concert.
So as not to play spoiler, I'll keep to the performers and the composers (so you can guess which John Williams scores are in play). Some clues might hint at the film.
Conductor Grant Cooper had the orchestra tautly in rhythm in a John Williams march to open the program. Williams, whose 81st birthday was Friday, is a master of rhythmic tension fused with bass lines that build expectation. Cooper made that stand out while the orchestra's trumpets played with verve. The horns showed precise intonation in the second section's slithering harmonic shifts, something the film's main character would not like.
Concertmaster Amelia Chan played with tender warmth in an extended solo from one of Williams' great dramatic scores. A duo of alto flutes played with dark sweetness on the bridge.
I have never felt that Vangelis' electronic music translated well to orchestra. The main problem is that it seems to run on and on without much variation. But the more sprint-like version that the symphony performed was concise and surprisingly colorful.
The only real disappointment of the concert was music by Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer. The original film score is so incredibly messy and over the top with electronic drums laid onto the orchestra sound in post-production that an orchestra can't render the visceral energy of it.
But Cooper's conducting had the benefit of cleaning it all up, which helped clarify the lines and textures. But, save for a brilliant little cello solo by Andrea Di Gregorio and some splashing accents and twisting lines in the main theme, maybe there isn't a whole lot there.
Music from the early days of film made it into the show, although sadly no Korngold. Max Steiner's most famous piece was there, with beautiful work by the strings and horns and some subtle percussion playing. Not bad for music written for a detective thriller and borrowed for something else.
One thinks of Williams as a composer of big themes and big moments, but Cooper chose a cue called "Out to Sea and the Shark Cage Fugue" to represent the movie "Jaws." The beginning segment featured excellent solo work by piccoloist Pamela Murchison, hornist Marsha Palmer, trumpeter David Porter and trombonist Chris Dearth. The fugue was a wonder of ferocious low strings and piano that swelled into an orchestral feeding frenzy.
Howard Shore's musical fantasy had too many themes compressed into too short a period to be satisfying, but the orchestra played with élan and soprano Mariel van Dalsum sang with lovely effect on the song of fellowship that ended the piece.
The music of Westerns was represented by a score by Dimitri Tiomkin. The music was clocklike in its precision but the sound has the gleam of modernism, more the steel and glass of a 1950's Chicago office building than the dusty streets of Shiloh. Wonderful, though.
The concert ended with some Mancini comedy and more John Williams.
It repeats tonight at 8 at the Clay Center.