You have to hand it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Just as it is in the heat of putting on a little TV awards show over at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday night, the group still found time to stage the first-ever “Oscar Concert” on Thursday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall — and turn out in force. This ambitious show, which featured suites conducted by all the nominated composers for Best Original Music Score as well as performances of the four Oscar-nominated songs, was put into the works and approved by the Board of Governors last year, according to former president Hawk Koch, one of last night’s attendees. But as Academy Music Branch governors Arthur Hamilton and Charles Fox put it, most of this was cobbled together in the six weeks since the nominees were named. All the top Academy brass were there humming along, including president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson along with numerous members, particularly from the music branch.
It was quite a logistical challenge pulling the event off, which I am told by reliable sources cost in the neighborhood of half a million dollars to produce. And it may be sparking a trend: The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences plans to do its own concert at Royce Hall on May 21st featuring composers of new and classic TV scores. But I’m afraid Oscar has set this bar pretty high with a program that ranks as one of the highlights of the entire awards season, a classy event that saw tickets going to the general public for up to $100 each and discounted tickets for Academy members at $75 for orchestra seats. Box office was sweet as the place was packed.
The format of the evening had each composer conducting a suite of their nominated score preceded by a brief Q&A conducted by Elvis Mitchell. In between the suites there were performances of the four nominated songs. (A fifth, “Alone Yet Not Alone,” was disqualified after it was revealed — initially on Deadline — that its composer, former Academy governor Bruce Broughton, lobbied for votes — a big no no for Academy insiders.) “How many times do you get to say you were a part of history? Well you get to say that tonight,” the show’s host Common said as he opened the proceedings. Charles Fox then introduced the true stars of the evening, the Academy Symphony Orchestra , who did a flawless job performing the various nominated scores. They got it off to a roaring star with the late Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring “Fanfare For Oscar” with Fox handling the baton on that one.
In introducing Philomena’s six-time nominee Alexandre Desplat, Common correctly noted that the 86th Annual Academy Awards “is shaping up to be one of the most exciting for movie music fans”. There’s no question about that, and this category is one of the toughest to predict even though first-time nominee Steven Price is favored for his impressive Gravity score. Yet it is just as easy to see overdue contenders like Desplat or 11-time nominee Thomas Newman who got the sole nomination for Saving Mr. Banks finally getting their due. On the other end of that scale is 49-time nominee and five-time winner John Williams, up this time for The Book Thief , going for his sixth statuette. Clearly he is the most revered composer of all, winning an enthusiastic standing ovation as he was introduced to close out the show. Williams is a god to his colleagues. I think if he had even scored Jackass’ Bad Grandpa instead of Book Thief he would have still been nominated this year. And then there is the hip factor, with Arcade Fire’s William Butler along with Owen Pallett creating a score for Spike Jonze’s Her that manages to run the same remarkable gamut of emotions as the film’s lovestruck character played by Joaquin Phoenix. This is definitely one of those “bubble” categories that could prove to be a real office pool winner if you pick it right.
After seeing all these terrific scores performed to perfection I’d be happy with any of them, but a win for Newman (who it was noted received his first nomination 20 years ago for The Shawshank Redemption) would be nice, and same for Desplat. It’s tough to sit there year after year and watch someone else win, especially when the work is this good.
Not a whole lot came from the interview intervals — apparently these music men like to let the notes speak for themselves. Desplat said of his craft, “I try to circle the character and grab the soul.” Newman was succinct, saying his method is to “just jump in and put things up to images.” The suite he put together for the Saving Mr Banks portion of the night was moving, one of this great composer’s finest scores. Afterwards, Mitchell brought out Mary Poppins songwriter Richard M. Sherman to a standing ovation for a brief chat about the genesis of the film that deals with the development of Poppins and trying to work with cantankerous author P.L. Travers. During intermission, the indefatiguable 85-year-old Sherman, a longtime Academy Music Branch member and two-time Oscar winner, told me he hopes this becomes an annual event. He was beaming.
Price was the only one of the nominees not to conduct his own score, and in fact was blown away by the performance (conducted by Joseph Trapanese). He told Mitchell it was the first time he ever heard the music played by a full orchestra. He said he worked on Gravity for over a year and a lot of that work was “trial and error”. Williams, who obviously knows his way around an orchestra, saluted the Academy Symphony by saying, “What’s fantastic is we can understand completely that these movies couldn’t be what they are or couldn’t be made without the service of a great orchestra.”
Since the Academy didn’t want to duplicate things, none of Sunda night’s performers for the original songs were on hand at Royce Hall. Instead we got a spirited and infectious version of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” performed by Jill Scott and the Debbie Allen dancers (conducted by Charles Bernstein); Her’s sweet and simple “The Moon Song” interpreted by Cristin Milioti and a ukulele player; The Voice contestant Matt Cermanski filling in for Bono on “Ordinary Love”; and “Let It Go” composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez ably delivering their own nominated tune with Bobby accompanying his wife on piano as she belted out what has become a girl-power anthem and a frontrunner to win the category.
A night to remember for film music aficionados to be sure (count me among them). As I was leaving, one Academy member exclaimed, “Was this the best night ever or what!”