The Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Masters of Film Music series comes to a close this weekend with a concert of music by Michael Giacchino, an Italian American (he holds duo citizenship) composer. He specializes in music for film, TV and video games.
Some of his most famous works are the scores to television series such as Lost, Alias and Fringe, video games such as the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series, and films such as Mission: Impossible III, The Incredibles, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Ratatouille, Up, Super 8, Cars 2 and 50/50. Giacchino has received numerous awards for his work, including an Emmy, multiple Grammys, and an Academy Award. On Friday evening, he presented some compiled suites from many of these works and five selections from his latest effort, the movie John Carter.
One of the most interesting aspects of this concert was the presence of his orchestrator and collaborator, Tim Simonec, who conducted the first three selections. He is a marvel of determination in that in March of 1984, a tumor was removed from his cervical spinal cord, which rendered him a quadriplegic. He was told he would never walk again. That was all he needed to hear. He set about proving the doctors wrong and, after a two-year absence, he returned to pursue his conducting and composing career in film music. You would never have known this history to see him walk out on stage and conduct.
Of course, like most film composers, neither Giacchino nor Simonec are conductors in the symphonic sense of the word. Both just beat time inexpressively in a rarely changing manner and throw an occasional cue. They both give little expression and almost never indicate dynamics. The University of Texas Arlington A Cappella Choir, under the direction of Karen Kenaston-French, which only sings on vowels, were basically on their own to know when to enter.
The concert elicited two observations. One is that when the DSO projected the images from the movie, as they did first in the animated feature, Up, the music became magical. Without the projected images, the music sounded repetitive and directionless. It is really quite amazing that the music and the visuals are so closely linked that neither can exist effectively without the other.
The character of each selection changed, but the basic compositional voice remained much the same. One exception was the Paris café style that Gaicchino wrote for the animated feature Ratatouille, which has the unlikely plot of a rat who becomes the most celebrated chef in Paris by working a dull witted kitchen assistant remotely like a puppet. The film was charming and hearing the music brought some of the scenes back to memory. This probably wasn't the case for listeners unfamiliar with the movie.
The other observation is something that critics have decried for decades. That is if you play something loud and fast enough, the audience responds with an ecstatic ovation. In putting together these suites, Giacchino ended up putting one big brass driven moment after another in what seemed like an endless progression. Without the corresponding exciting visual, such as a space ship going into warp drive or heroic man finally reaching an impossible goal, it was just loud and brassy. Horns frequently had their bells up and it is not unreasonable to speculate that the gong had more to do in one concert than in the entire past three seasons.
The audience went wild.
This was especially true of the five selections from the science fiction movie John Carter, based Edgar Rice Burroughs' (of Tarzan fame) 11-volume "Barsoom" series of novels (1912–43). "You probably didn't see this movie," Gaicchino said forlornly. It was not a box office success in its recent release. "But, you should," he added, more than once. Here, he played five short selections, the last being the biggest moment of all.
The audience went wild. Again.
The purpose of this series was to have these composers write a new piece for the orchestra, something other than a series of moments. Where they would have to take a few themes and develop them over a longer period of time than a scene and demonstrate their composing ability in a work for the concert hall. The first two, Theodore Shapiro and George Fenton did this is a most successful manner. James Newton Howard did not compose a new work. Harry Gregson-Williams didn't even show up and the DSO screened the film Casablanca with the orchestra playing the Max Steiner score. This is really a shame since it was a wonderful idea in the first place and would have greatly refreshed the concert repertoire.
John Williams, the dean of film composers, does this regularly. In addition to his movie scores, which are imitated by everyone (including Giacchino) he has given us such esoteric offerings as an excellent bassoon concerto, Five Sacred Trees, written for Judith LeClair, the principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic in 1995.
Perhaps this idea will be tried again and the required commissions actually written. Regular symphony attendees are used to hearing a symphony or concerto where the composer leads them on a journey, anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours. It would have been fascinating to hear what Giacchino would have done to build up to just one of the big moments he does so well.