Oscars: John Williams, Jill Scott Spotlight Song and Score Nominees at Academy's First-Ever Concert

Aaron Poole / ©A.M.P.A.S.
Alexandre Desplat

The nominated composers -- from Steven Price to John Williams -- were on hand as this year's songs and scores took center stage Thursday night at UCLA's Royce Hall.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its first Oscar Concert on Thursday night, inaugurating what it hopes becomes an annual tradition.

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Before an enthusiastic audience at UCLA’s Royce Hall, each of this year’s best score nominees was invited to introduce and then conduct a suite from the score. The program also included performances of the year’s four nominated songs.

"How many times do you get to say that you are truly part of history?" hip-hop musician Common, who served as the evening’s tuxedoed emcee, asked rhetorically before introducing Charles Fox, a member of the Academy’s board of governors, who welcomed the crowd on behalf of the organization’s music branch. He then kicked off the proceedings by conducting the 80-piece orchestra of studio musicians, billed as the Academy Symphony Orchestra, in "Fanfare for Oscar," composed by the late Jerry Goldsmith.

While music scores have often been wedged awkwardly into past Oscar broadcasts, the concert allowed the scores and their composers to occupy center stage. Each of the best score nominees was introduced by critic Elvis Mitchell, who conducted brief interviews with them.

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"I try to circle the character and then grab the soul of this character," six-time nominee Alexandre Desplat said before taking the baton and conducting a sampling of music from Philomena. Explaining his approach to composing the Saving Mr. Banks score, Thomas Newman, who has racked up 12 Oscar nominations, said he would play themes against passages from a film and "listen to what the music does to an image."

Steven Price, a first-time nominee for Gravity, whose score combines a soundscape with its ultimately soaring melodies, said that he took his musical cues from Sandra Bullock’s character of Ryan Stone, as "the tempos of the music were dictated, a lot of the time, by her heartbeat." Joseph Trapanese stepped in to conduct the suite from Gravity, allowing Price to listen to his music played by a full orchestra for the first time.

The composing team of William Butler and Owen Pullett, who were on hand to introduce the music from Spike Jonze’s Her, revealed that their gentle score originally had a colder, Blade Runner-like feel to it, since the film was originally set 30 years in the future. But when Jonze decided to place the action just 15 years in the future, they dialed it back to give it a warmer feel.

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And John Williams, who has been nominated 49 times and won five Oscars, got a hearty round of applause when he proclaimed movies "wouldn’t be what they are and couldn’t be made without the service of a great orchestra," before conducting music from The Book Thief.

Interspersed among the orchestral selections were renditions of the four nominated original songs. No mention was made of the previously nominated fifth tune "Alone Yet Not Alone," which was disqualified because of campaign violations on the part of one of its composers.

With such performers as U2 and Idina Menzel, who sang the songs onscreen, slated to appear on Sunday’s Oscar show, the Academy concert opted for a different set of performers. Composer Kristen Anderson-Lopez demurred that she was no Menzel, but proved that she has a pretty good set of pipes herself as she sang Frozen’s "Let It Go," with her husband and fellow composer Robert Lopez accompanying her on piano.

Jill Scott, stepping in for Pharrell Williams, had the audience clapping along as she sang Despicable Me 2’s "Happy," joined on stage by young Debbie Allen Dancers in red tutus. Cristin Milioti, the Broadway singer and How I Met Your Mother actress, filled in for Karen O by singing "The Moon Song" from Her. And Matt Carmanski, who competed on season five of The Voice, handled U2’s "Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

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The evening also included an appearance by Mary Poppins songwriter Richard Sherman, who received a standing ovation before sitting down to tell a few tales about how he and his late brother Robert came to work for Walt Disney before they first encountered P.L. Travers. "I have nothing very nice to say," he said of Mary Poppins’ creator, played by Emma Thompson in Saving Mr. Banks. "She was a rather difficult lady."

Concluding the evening, Fox rang down the curtain by promising more Oscar Concerts, saying, "This is the first of hopefully many."