Composer David Newman is conducting two of the LA Phil’s classic movies with live orchestra: On The Waterfront Friday at 8PM and Casablanca Sunday at 2PM. Both events are part of the LA Phil’s multi-media in/SIGHT series, and also part of a new three-year collaboration between the LA Phil and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Newman talked to KUSC Contributor Sheila Tepper about the surprises that came when he studied both scores. Click below to listen to their conversation, or read it below.
S.T. When you accepted this assignment what was thrilling you the most?
D.N. Well I think On the Waterfront is an extraordinary score by an extraordinary 20th century figure, Leonard Bernstein, not just as a composer, and the composer of West Side Story, but as a great conductor and a great advocate for music. And this is kind of early on, this is 1954. On The Waterfront is a sweaty little claustrophobic movie about dock workers. The character Terry Malloy, that’s Marlon Brando, is up on the roof with doves, which symbolize peace and beauty. And then, a lot of the movie he’s down on the dock with all the dirt and all the bad stuff that’s going on. And then there’s a love story that goes through the movie. So there are three elements that he musicalizes, and uses them in musical counterpoint. As you get toward the end of the movie, he’s using these three different themes or motifs or whatever you want to call them in conjunction with each other. It’s a really unique, brilliant, score and it’s a precursor, I think. You can hear some West Side Story in it, you hear his style. He uses an interval called a minor seventh that is the interval on the song Somewhere, he uses that interval a lot in this score and he uses another interval called an augmented fourth, that is also used in West Side Story, as an animating interval in On The Waterfront.
Oh course I’m familiar with the Suite that Bernstein did. You know, there’s never been a soundtrack released for On The Waterfront until a year ago. They used to record things on this system of acetates, they found them at Warner Brothers and then a company released it. Sometimes when you go to the movie it’s kind of soft and hard to hear. The score is so intimate and chamber music-like, how delicate it is. This floaty thing when he’s up on the roof is beautiful and it’s all based on these three motifs. It really surprised me how elegant and light it is. In a way, you think of it as this dark movie, and believe me, it’s dark, it’s a difficult movie. Bernstein handles that really well, moving from the earth to the roof “heaven,” so I love that about it.
And then Casablanca I’ve seen a million times, but I’ve never really bonded to Casablanca, if you can believe it. Now studying it and watching it over and over, that is an absolutely brilliant film, with a score that is based on a song that is what we call diegetic—a song that is used in the narrative of the movie. Even the lyric of the song “As Time Goes By” while all those people are waiting in Casablanca trying to get out, and it’s an amazingly modern score for being done in 1942, which is when the film was made and scored. I think it came out in 1943. There are Hollywood Golden Age passages in it, but it never feels sentimental, like a lot of those movies of that time. In the middle of the movie there’s a flashback where they’re in Paris and all that, and it never gets maudlin or heavy, it’s very light and interesting in the way that all these motives are used.
I think these guys like my father Alfred Newman, Steiner, Korngold, sometimes they get a rap of being too sentimental, but when you really look at it and you really study it, you see what a modern kind of statement it is.
So I was happy to do both of them and I know this orchestra will just kill it.
S.T. I did a lot of research on Max Steiner and I was fascinated by his background—conducting his first opera at the age of 12, and Gustav Mahler being one of his tutors.
D.N. That’s what’s such a wonderful thing about Los Angeles. If you think of that time, what happened if you were in Europe and you were Jewish, or even if you weren’t Jewish, but you were an artist, you’re not compatible with that kind of militaristic fascism, a lot of them came here, because of the burgeoning movie industry where you could make a really really good living. So Schoenberg comes here and Alma Mahler and Stravinsky. Some of them didn’t stay, but a huge amount of musicians, string players and wind players came to Los Angeles and stayed here, and worked in the industry and made the style of what you think of as Hollywood Golden Age—Golden Age means early ‘30’s to about 1960’s—they’re the ones that made that sound, that beautiful lush string kind of sound, among other styles as well. But I think we all think of that kind of hysterical string playing, because that was the Heifetz and Kreisler style of the time. It’s a really fascinating history.
S.T. And we’re starting to have it again with new music.
D.N. Here? Definitely it’s now a mecca for new music. I mean when I was growing up, LA sort of had a rap of being a kind of cultural backwater, and it never really was like that, but it’s such a broad, sprawling place that people don’t really think about all this new music that started here. And then when Disney Hall opened, I went to that first Green Umbrella concert, I think it was in 2004, and there was at least 1200 people. Composers would get up on stage and they looked like a deer in headlights, they’d never seen so many people at what was an incredibly esoteric new music concert. And some of the most fun concerts that are put on at Disney Hall are these crazy new music concerts where you never know what’s going to happen.
S.T. Think we’ll get new audiences (with the movie programming)?
D.N. This is my take on this. Classical music can be difficult to promote because it’s complicated. It’s like reading Faulkner or Dostoyevsky: it takes a little doing. Those of us that love this, we’ve heard Beethoven symphonies a lot, we’re not intimidated. But if you’ve never been to a concert, it can be intimidating. I posit that a lot of people are familiar with it, they just don’t know it. So when they come and see On The Waterfront, they’ve probably seen the movie before. Now the music’s a little more front and center and it’s a concert. So I think in that sense for our mission of trying to make this comprehensible and keep it going because we all love it so much, it’s a good thing. I think doing movies is a good development tool, I think it helps people to not be intimidated by it. My wife and I work with this group called the American Youth Symphony that Mehli Mehta started. We’ve been doing a film music element on one of our programs for the last seven years and we have noticed that people who come to that concert start coming to some other stuff as well. Also, I’ve been doing this a fair amount since 2011, when we first did West Side Story here at the Bowl with the LA Phil. I would venture to guess that every single orchestra in the world is doing at least one film music concert a year.
S.T. I’m sure this relationship is just at the beginning and we look forward to hearing and seeing you do many more.
D.N. I hope so, that’s really is why we’re doing it.
S.T. Thank you.
D.N. Thank you.