The american experience
Enjoy the experience of mid-20th-century America through the musical lens of Hollywood. The repertoire features Aaron Copland’s The Red Pony Suite, based on a story by John Steinbeck, and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront Suite, written for the 1954 film directed by Elia Kazan. Also included is Elmer Bernstein’s music from the films To Kill a Mockingbird and The Magnificent Seven.
Normally, the first place winner of the 2021 DSO Young Artists Auditions performs at our March concert. Because of COVID, we modified our competition to a virtual format and awarded eight Distinguished Winners. We hope to livestream a recital featuring the winners later this spring.
As a reminder, all season and family concerts have been canceled due to COVID-19. However, if you would like a sneak peek at the virtual concert experiences that will be created this year, here is a copy of our season brochure.
Please stay safe and we look forward to welcoming you back to Wentz Concert Hall soon!
The Red Pony Suite
American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) was much in demand for film music in the 1940s, having won Academy Award nominations for each of his first three Hollywood film scores – Of Mice and Men (1939), Our Town (1940), and The North Star (1943). After completing his Symphony No. 3 in 1947, he decided to return to films. Copland collaborated with producer-director Lewis Milestone, with whom he had worked on both Of Mice and Men and The North Star. Milestone had decided to make his first color film an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony. Copland had read and liked the Steinbeck book, so he joined the project and agreed to write and record approximately an hour of music – one of his largest musical efforts – in ten weeks for a significant fee (at the time, at least) of $15,000. The score was completed in 1948, and the film was released the following year.
Steinbeck’s novella tells the story of a young boy, Tom, living on a ranch with his parents and the cowhand, Billy Buck. The story deals with the death of the boy’s beloved pony, Gabilan, and the subsequent birth of the Gabilan’s foal, along with relationships between the characters and scenes of everyday life on the ranch. The music has a folklike quality, and Copland used unusual instrumental colors to enhance the dramatic action of the film stating, “This was not your typical Western.” Even before the film was released, Copland decided to extract a concert suite from the score (premiered by the Houston Symphony Orchestra in October, 1948). The six-movement suite contains:
“Morning on the Ranch,” which uses music from both the beginning and the end of the film
“The Gift,” depicting the moment when Gabilan is given to Tom
“Dream March and Circus Music,” music that accompanies two of Tom’s daydreams
“Walk to the Bunkhouse,” with melodies representing Billy Buck
“Grandfather’s Story,” in which Tom’s visiting grandfather tells about how he led a wagon train across the country
“Happy Ending,” which, like “Morning on the Ranch,” uses material from the beginning and the ending of the film
Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront
Leonard Bernstein originally turned down the offer to compose the score for the 1954 film On the Waterfront but accepted the offer after viewing Marlon Brando’s impressive acting and the realistic depiction of union corruption in New York’s dockyards. Although losing the Oscar that year to composer Dimitri Tiomkin (who wrote the film scores for The Guns of Navarone, Giant, High Noon, and other westerns), Bernstein gained respect as a major international film composer after the 1954 Venice Film Festival. This was Bernstein’s one and only film score. Wanting to perform the work in a concert setting, Bernstein created the single-movement symphonic suite.
In the Andante – Presto barbaro, we hear the two themes featured during the opening credits of the film. First a solo horn unfolds “with dignity” one of Bernstein’s most evocative melodies that seems to embody Brando’s character. Then the percussion battery intrudes with the thundering syncopations that often accompany scenes at the docks. A solo saxophone introduces a motive that ties the rest of the score together with a descending tritone. The two poles of the noble cause versus the violence of the city play out in the rest of the suite. The Adagio – Allegro molto agitato is filled with relentlessly churning strings with unpredictable accents from brass and woodwinds reminiscent of Stravinsky. The opening horn melody returns in the Andante largamente before culminating in a triumphant finale.
Composer Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) was a legendary movie master responsible for some of the most iconic themes of the second half of the 20th Century. Between 1951 and 2002, Bernstein composed over 200 scores for films and TV programs. His incredible body of work includes such movie greats as The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape, Airplane!, Ghostbusters, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Wild Wild West, and Thoroughly Modern Millie, the latter for which he won an Oscar. On this program, we honor two of his works – The Magnificent Seven (for which he received an Academy Award nomination) and To Kill a Mockingbird (recognized in 2003 as “one of the 101 Best Movies You’ve Ever Heard” by FILM COMMENT magazine).
To Kill a Mockingbird
Composer Elmer Bernstein has said that music “can express what [the story’s characters] are not willing to express, or are unable to express. For that very reason, the music can supply an emotional rail, so to speak, for the film.” In creating the music for To Kill a Mockingbird, he found that “what was going on here were a series of rea-world adult problems seen through the eyes of children. That led me to the basic sound of the score: the piano being played one note at a time. Music box-type sounds, bells, harps, single-note flutes were all things that suggested a child’s world.”
Bernstein’s gentle evocation of small town Southern living as seen through the eyes of a child uses small orchestra (strings and horns, featuring solos for piano, flute, accordion, and celeste) while borrowing a Coplandesque tone. His warm harmonies clearly capture the feeling of family nostalgia, while using low piano and brass for some of the more unseemly characters that occasionally come out of the backwoods. What makes this score truly important is that it was used to fill an essential gap in the film: music was the one element that really took the children’s point of view.
The Magnificent Seven Symphonic Suite
Elmer Bernstein’s theme for the film The Magnificent Seven ranks as one of the most emotive Western themes ever – after more than 40 years, it can still raise goosebumps! Released in 1960, the film was a Western reimagining of the 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai starring Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, and Charles Bronson. Despite the all-star cast, the film was not terribly successful when it premiered. However, in the years since, it has become recognized as a classic of the genre.
In spite of the typical Western action on set, Elmer Bernstein tells us, “If you look at the movie without music, you’d be surprised how slow-moving it is. I realized immediately that the function of the music would be to get on top of the film, drive it along. It had to have tremendous life and vigor.” Beyond the scope of the film, Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score has permeated American culture: the music has been used in countless commercials (including the Marlboro Man campaign) and referenced on such television shows as Cheers and The Simpsons.