Elmer Bernstein, 80th birthday concert

In his 80th year Elmer Bernstein appears quite spritely. He walks slowly with dignity across the platform and then with a short spring steps onto the podium. If you've not seen Bernstein conducting before, certain physical characteristics initially draw your attention. He has a full head of white hair. He is quite short in stature, conducts left-handed and is quite economical in his gestures giving the impression of intimate concentration on the orchestra without the flamboyant playing to the audience of other conductors. On this occasion he is conducting The Royal Scottish National Orchestra in the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall in a programme of his own film music, and he is given a warm reception by the Scottish audienceas he takes the baton in his left hand and launches into the Hallelujah Trail Overture. This is light-hearted yet energetic enough to act as a rousing opening number for tonight's concert.

Turning to the audience, Bernstein now addresses the audience, joking that it is dangerous to place a microphone in front of him, you never know what he might say. Bernstein remarks that he was 75 when he last played at this location and that it is good to be back. He introduces the first half of tonight's concert consisting of extended suites from a variety of his film scores. He introduces each of these to set the scene for these works, so that the audience know what to expect and explain "why the music is the way it is". Summer and Smoke is the film version of the Tennessee Williams' play of the same name, the music depicting relationships which misfire and the descent into madness of one of the lead characters. In contrast to this, The Grifters is something of a dark comedy about the mixed relationships of three con artists. The music for this is by turns wistful and haltingly whimsical.

Kings of the Sun starring Yul Brynner and set during the Mayan civilisation begins with a flourish on a variety of drums, and this feature recurs during the work. The plucky march theme of The Great Escape is instantly recognisable. However the suite played at this concert cleverly avoids revealling this in full, saving it for near the end. Instead it paints the backdrop of war, filling in the realistically harsh conditions of the prison camp. Against this context, the main theme is more than just a spirited march, but an expression of rebellion and maintenance of good spirits despite the real hardships endured by the inmates.

Following the interval, Bernstein introduces his audience to the second half of the concert. In contrast to the extended suites of the first half, this features 5 waltz themes never before played in concert, followed by music from 3 Oscar winning films. The waltzes come from The Age of Innocence, The Incredible Sarah, Summer and Smooke (again), From the Terrace and Thorough Modern Millie, and together demonstrate both the unifying elements which classify a piece as a waltz (which is more than simply a 3/4 time-signature) and yet the variety that can be achieved in this medium. "The Age of Innocence" is leisurely and romantic, "The Incredible Sarah" more complex, and the "Summer and Smoke" waltz as Bernstein himself notes is like those which might be heard on a bandstand on a summer afternoon. The "From the Terrace" waltz is much darker in colour, and "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is pure musichall.

It was for "Thoroughly Modern Millie" that Bernstein was awarded his only Oscar for Best Score Adaptation of the original song material, and the oscar statuette now forms a link for the next three films. Bernstein was nominated for each of them, but they all won in categories other than the music. Firstly we hear the wonderful music from To Kill a Mockingbird. For many this is the true highlight of the concert. Uniquely the music manages to look at the world from a child's viewpoint. It has that quality of innocence, but yet seems to show the fears and uncertainties which might seem trivial to an adult yet are very real for a child. Bernstein refers to John Wayne, for whom he was to write many themes, as "The Duke", who was the recipient of an oscar for his part in True Grit. No stranger to the Western genre, Bernstein created one of the most memorable western themes for this film, with its jaunty syncopations.

Bernstein saved his most famous work for the concert's finale. As instantly recognisable as any scene from the film itself, the music of The Magnificent Seven just oozes with all the qualities we associate with Westerns from this decade, set in magnificent scenery the theme in its first statement is full of the bravado of "The Seven", and yet when repeated using different orchestration, it depicts the simple peasant life which the gun-fighters can't enjoy themselves but are here to protect. Following an enthusiastic applause, Bernstein repeats this finale as an encore.


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