A Night at the Movies: The RPO Celebrates British Film Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Royal Philharmonic Orchestra 65th Anniversary Season: A Celebration of British Film Music. Clio Gould (leader/violin), Eddie Hession (accordion), Martin Robertson (alto saxophone), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Christopher Gunning (composer/conductor) and Nigel Hess (composer/conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 14.6.2012. (JPr)

In an opening comment Nigel Hess said he was reminded of record evenings he used to have as a student: ‘You used to listen to new pieces and say “wouldn’t it be nice to conduct that one day?”’ To be honest, during the second half of the concert, when the two composer/conductor/presenters were at their most relaxed, it all became a cosy reminder of time spent on a lazy Sunday afternoon at a family gathering when a genial elderly relative would play his favourite pieces at the piano and tell some tall-tales of his youth.

We heard music from some great British composers whose film work was incidental to what else they are remembered for: Benjamin Britten (Love from a Stranger), Arthur Bliss (Things to Come), Sir Richard Rodney Bennett (Murder on the Orient Express), Ralph Vaughan Williams (Coastal Command)and William Walton (Richard III). Others such as Richard Addinsell (Goodbye Mr Chips) and William Alwyn (The History of Mr Polly, The Magic Box) are mostly remembered for their films. Pointedly it was Alwyn who said about his work: ‘If you believe in what you are doing it will be good music.’ Overseeing all of this were two more modern composers working for the big and small screen, Nigel Hess (Ladies in Lavender and a number of TV detective series) and Christopher Gunning (Cold Lazarus, La Vie en Rose and TV’s Poirot). Paying tribute to them and their predecessors was the valiant Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the musicians of choice for many of the original film scores from which we heard excerpts.

I like film music, though my favourite composers are Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, and those familiar with these two will recognise what I went to the cinema to see whilst I was growing up. The films mentioned in the previous paragraph were a mix of the famous … with the forgotten – and looking at the mix of black-and-white and colour stills projected high above the platform, it is easy to see why some have not survived – however music from those films lives on. The most significant murmurs of recognition from the typically elderly audience were for some of the moments from TV shows, such as Poirot and, especially, Hetty Wainthropp Investigates,with ‘Hetty’ – or rather Patricia Routledge – present in the audience. On this matter, Nigel Hess gave his thanks for ITV3 who constantly repeat this and other similar shows, and presumably generate additional small fees for the composer.

Film music still generates some classic scores but these days can often be just a few tinkling moments on a piano or sitar, or a pop jukebox compilation of hit songs. Music for TV programmes does little more than highlight moments of tension or conflict … and often it rises to a climax only when the adverts are approaching! To be truthful, film and TV music whether from Britain or Hollywood has always owed much to other music influences and these include the compositions of great classical composers of another generation. Christopher Gunning’s Fight sequence from Cold Lazarus had hints of Shostakovich and the horns lifted their bells for the almost transfigurational epilogue to this suite, highlighting its possible Mahlerian antecedents. Heightened atmosphere and emotion is the music’s aim and that was evident in almost everything we heard, enthusiastically conducted by Hess and Gunning and supported with virtuosic ease by Clio Gould’s violin (Ladies in Lavender), Eddie Hession’s accordion (La Vie en Rose) and Martin Robertson’s alto saxophone (TV’s Poirot). Although – sorry, Christopher – I have never seen a full episode of Poirot its theme music was very familiar and that is to the credit of a great tune!

Occasionally you heard the same elements at work in different music, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s soaring anthem for Coastal Command could be for nothing other than a film about aircraft, yet with a greater weight of lower register detail we get William Walton’s stirring music for Richard III. Nigel Hess described the latter as ‘quintessentially English’ and that is the best description for the entire concert. I know this evening was intended to stir past memories, entertain and not educate, but I would have liked to hear more about the process of composing for film and TV. Totally dependent on the whims of TV and film producers, Nigel Hess reflected how the composer has ‘a happy, sad existence’. The best we got were a few anecdotes including how a TV producer wanted his music for Maigret to ‘be French’ and when that came as no surprise to the composer he persisted ‘I really, really, want it to be Parisian music’. When Hess asked him why this was so important he revealed all: ‘We’re filming the whole thing in Budapest!’ Much the same thing happened to Christopher Gunning whose La Vie en Rose (about Edith Piaf) has his incidental French music for a film shot in Prague! More informative was how he used music in the minor key to reflect Piaf’s sadness and then, in a major key, her happiness. I would have liked more such detail but it was a very nice evening nevertheless.

Jim Pritchard

For further information about Christopher Gunning please visit: www.christopher-gunning.co.uk. For more about Nigel Hess, visit: www.myramusic.co.uk.

For future concerts with the RPO see their website www.rpo.co.uk.