2018’s Oscar-Nominated Composers Dazzle at L.A. Philharmonic Concert

The Oscar Concert - Publicity - H 2018
Paul Hebert/A.M.P.A.S.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the L.A. Philharmonic presented the Oscar Concert, a stirring and lively celebration of film music — and this year’s five nominated scores — on Feb. 28 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The concert hall has always had a love/hate relationship with film music. Unlike the classical repertory, film scores always have one definitive performance to model: What’s heard in the film, either through repeated viewings or album listening, becomes the example to emulate for any subsequent performance, making interpretation a potential minefield — especially for devotees who, through repeated viewings or album listening, have this music committed to memory.

But hearing this often iconic music performed live has its own thrills, and Wednesday’s lavish multimedia celebration of Oscar-nominated scores (and the emotions film music can inspire) at Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall delivered those in spades.

In a surprisingly star-studded evening (Paul Thomas Anderson! John Williams! Michelle Rodriguez?), the Motion Picture Academy and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by conductor Thomas Wilkins, presented ensembles of movie-score moments performed under montages by editors Scott Draper, Kellie Cunningham and Mark DelForte, all organized by curators and music Academy branch luminaries Michael Giacchino, Laura Karpman and Charles Bernstein. By matching scores to specific concepts and movie shots to the music, the concert made a strong argument for the universality of this idiom while striking themes of inclusion and uplift.

Composer Michael Giacchino and Wilkins opened the concert with an effective and instructive comedy routine that had Giacchino demanding Wilkins make changes on the fly to his finale music from Pixar’s Up, and Wilkins presenting three different versions for Giacchino’s approval.

The program proper then began by mixing Rachel Portman’s gentle evocation of Victorian England in her Nicholas Nickleby score, Nino Rota’s breezy, nostalgic Amarcord score and A.R. Rahman’s propulsive world music from Slumdog Millionaire as “The Sound of Home,” demonstrating that home could be any place or any culture on earth. For “The Sound of Love,” Wilkins presented Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s hushed, trembling romantic music from The Adventures of Robin Hood (a concert detour from Korngold’s more familiar Golden Age fanfares), Luis Bacalov’s wistful accordion from Il Postino and the soulful, yearning erhu from Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with a montage presenting every possible cinematic coupling from Bogie and Bergman to the cowboys from Brokeback Mountain.

Composers Charles Bernstein and Michael Abels (Get Out) presented “The Sound of Fear,” beginning with the pitch-bending strings of Mica Levi’s Jackie (although why not Levi’s even creepier Under the Skin?). That was followed by a bone-rattling, bravura treatment of Quincy Jones’ grim, harrowing In Cold Blood score, an acoustic treatment of John Carpenter’s minimalist Halloween theme on piano and finally John Williams’ wicked dance from The Witches of Eastwick (just slightly lethargic compared to Williams’ original film performance).

Michelle Rodriguez was the surprising but appropriate choice to introduce “The Sound of the Chase,” which opened with Dave Grusin’s quirky piano score for The Firm before a bravura take on Lalo Schifrin’s classic car-chase-buildup music from Bullitt. With trombones revving and Schifrin himself in attendance, the sublime Bullitt music proved every bit as cool playing under Rodriguez’s car chases from The Fast and the Furious as it did underscoring Steve McQueen’s iconic, muscle-car cat-and-mouse game on the streets of San Francisco. Propelling the chase montage’s finale was a rare treat: Jerry Goldsmith’s buoyant and witty end title from The Great Train Robbery, as rousing playing under scenes of the truck chase footage from Raiders of the Lost Ark as it was to Victorian locomotives.

Composer and trumpet impresario Terence Blanchard arrived to perform a piercingly expressive solo to open his Malcolm X score for “The Sound of Courage.” Both Malcolm X and Alex North’s Spartacus (with the humble nobility of its slave theme rising as if out of the dust left by its opening, clashing Roman fanfares) relied on a low, martial pulse of tubas to conjure the idea of political struggle for freedom and human rights; meanwhile, Joe Hisaishi’s lyrical piano-into-strings melody for the animated Spirited Away spoke to a more innocent, child-like bravery in the face of the unknown. 

The second half of the program dropped the montages but amped the star power with directors of the Oscar-nominated scores from 2017 introducing their composers (live in most cases) to conduct excerpts from their works. Martin McDonagh introduced Carter Burwell via video, and Burwell conducted his music for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — which, like much of his distinctive music for the Coen Bros. films, makes a kind of majesty out of a molehill, opening with a feeling of quiet regret before spaghetti western-like chimes and Liv Redpath’s eerie soprano performance add an epic quality.

Guillermo del Toro (cheekily introducing himself as Michael Moore) welcomed Alexandre Desplat, whose The Shape of Water music conjured up a romantic French atmosphere with accordion, Nick Orlando’s organ performance, whistling harmonies that hinted at sci-fi theremins and droplet-like flute notes. All the elements gathered into a rhapsodic yet melancholy dance melody.

After an introduction from Paul Thomas Anderson explaining how he asked composer Jonny Greenwood to write music in the vein of Nelson Riddle for Phantom Thread, Thomas Wilkins conducted the result. The piece played a bit like the underpinnings for a romantic ballad that Sinatra never performed, with a sinuous piano line moving like a seamstress’ needle over strings until, taken up by the strings themselves, it becomes the music’s fabric itself, with just the hint of Vertigo-like obsession.

The evening ended with two rock stars who straddled both film music’s roots (for everyone who believes film music began with Star Wars) and its current direction. Rian Johnson struggled to introduce John Williams without gushing, and Williams smoothly conducted his “The Rebellion Is Reborn” music from The Last Jedi, effortlessly earning a standing ovation from the Disney Concert Hall audience.

Then Hans Zimmer and fellow keyboardist Benjamin Wallfisch entered after Christopher Nolan’s video introduction to perform Zimmer’s enveloping and unnerving music from Dunkirk. Unveiling a giant computer control panel that looked like it had been hijacked from the Jupiter 2, Zimmer added his alarm claxon-like, blaring synthesizer figure to trembling orchestral performances conducted by Wilkins. The approach built to a soothing, Elgar-like sense of accomplishment by way of Emerson, Lake & Palmer — and earned Zimmer his own standing O. 

Now all that remains is for the Academy to pick a winner.