by Warren M. Sherk
An iconic film, High Noon. An orchestra, the Utah Symphony, that has been performing in the West since 1940. For “A Symphonic Night at the Movies” the film and orchestra came together as one at Maurice Abravanel Hall in downtown Salt Lake City for the world premiere of the film accompanied by a live symphony orchestra.
For most film composers, the recording of their music is the highlight of a lengthy process that begins with a concept and continues through public screenings of the film.
Hearing a film score in a concert hall while viewing the projected film is as close as one can get to that magical moment when the music was first recorded.
With High Noon, a film I’ve seen a number of times, it’s a revelatory experience. Tiomkin, by this point in his career, had mastered the art of film scoring. That is readily apparent in all aspects of the score, from the placement of music, its function, and the musical language. Not to mention the pioneering use of a ballad to musically narrate the story.
Projecting the film with subtitles allowed the music to be heard and to breathe under and with the dialogue, creating a new and different viewing and auditory experience.
What particularly stands out in concert is the underscore for the character played by Mexican actress Katy Jurado. With antecedents in Mexican music, ably led by a solo trumpeter, the orchestral music is masterfully interwoven into the underscore. In concert one can follow Jurado’s compelling story with her ties to all three prominent male characters through the music Tiomkin has created for her.
There are subtleties that become apparent, such as when Grace Kelly utters the word “Please” to Jurado, and the music tone paints “begging” in a way that words can’t describe.
One of my favorite montages in all of filmdom begins when Gary Cooper, alone in a room, writes “Last Will and Testament” on a sheet of paper. What follows is all music and finely-edited picture. Each character is shown one after the other as the music builds, with that great line in the trombones: Da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-di-dah, announcing high noon has arrived.
Synchronizing music to picture is not easy. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, a typical film studio music department employed a dedicated staff person, with the job title of “Scorer,” tasked with the technical side of matching music to picture.
Conductor Connor Gray Covington did a terrific job keeping the music in sync, a sweep-hand timing clock next to the conducting podium his only timing device. (Other traditional options include streamers and punches as well as click tracks.) His tempos and rubatos were spot on, he was mostly able to duck under dialogue, and he matched the recurring and unstinting swinging clock pendulums with the music.
The orchestra was certainly up to the task. There are gripping moments that verge on the avant-garde, dense and harmonically complex, as well as passages of lyric beauty.
In fact, the tone of the music shifts constantly. Tiomkin often uses visual cues, such as the opening and closing of doors, to begin or end musical ideas. The movement of the actors can also influence the pace of the score.
The concert presentation heightens one’s awareness of the music and its importance to the film.
Each section of the orchestra plays a prominent role. The string section, sans violins, carries the score through its twists and turns.
The trombone section, with the score’s previously mentioned signature motif, shined throughout the evening. The percussion section, the marimba player in particular, portrays the passage of time, the ticking of the clock.
The woodwinds, notably the bassoons, offer biting commentary.
Maurice Abravanel Hall, named for the longtime conductor of the Utah Symphony, was brimming to capacity, with more than 2,700 seats filled. The audience, ranging in age from youth to seniors, was particularly vocal during the climatic scenes and the program ended with a burst of applause. The Utah Symphony and conductor Connor Gray Covington were lauded with lengthy and energetic applause.
A Symphonic Night at the Movies was produced by John Goberman and PGM Productions in arrangement with IMG Artists. The concert sponsor was Naoma Tate and the family of Hal Tate. Olivia Tiomkin attended, as did orchestrator Patrick Russ, who provided the live orchestra adaptation.
Backstage after the concert, Utah Symphony President and CEO Paul Meecham reflecting on the capacity crowd and audience enthusiasm said High Noon in Concert caught on with the public and “we’re thrilled.”
Conductor Connor Gray Covington, looking youthful and buoyant, conversed with orchestrator Patrick Russ and Olivia Tiomkin. Connor, pleased with the performance and tempos, recalled the intensity of Tiomkin’s score in the cue for the Final Showdown.
I hope the successful reception of High Noon in Concert will bring forth more concert presentations of worthy film scores. After the concert, even Paul Meecham was asking, ‘What should we do next?”
Posted February 19, 2018.