In a program that reveals the bridge between the movies and the concert hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) Maestro John DeMain joins forces with Daniel Hope, a British violinist with a deep interest in the European composers who fled fascism and made careers in Hollywood, created an enduring idiom of grand-scale film scores.
Composers in Exile: Creating the Hollywood Sound opened on March 6 and continues through March 8 at Overture Hall.
Although some European exiles (Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith) remained committed to the concert world, many others found new careers in writing film scores with varying effects on their classical compositions.
The MSO program concentrates on the composers that took refuge in Los Angeles: the Polish-born Franz Waxman (1906-1967), the Hungarian Miklós Rósza (1907-1995), and the Austrian Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). In MSO’s program, each is represented by a concert work and one or more examples from film scores.
The MSO program is organized rather arbitrarily: The concert pieces are performed in the first half, and the film music in the second. There were practical considerations, but I wish that each composer’s works in the two genres could have been combined, rather than separated, to highlight their individual characteristics.
The concert works display the composers’ admirable skills. Waxman’s Sinfonietta for Strings and Timpani (1955) is austerely powerful, reminding one of Bartók. Rósza’s Theme, Variations, and Finale (1933) is a remarkably virtuosic piece of orchestral writing, highly influenced by his fellow Hungarian, Kodály.
The one work of any familiarity, however, is the Violin Concerto (1947) by Korngold, surely the most gifted composer of the three. After a false start with it in the late 1930s (as program annotator Michael Allsen has established) it was completed for the violin great Jascha Heifetz. A fiercely virtuosic piece, it draws thematic material entirely from the composer’s film scores. Hope knows it inside out and performs it brilliantly.
The movie selections are played in latter-day arrangements. Hope, who has recently recorded samples of “exile” film music, appears as soloist in two pieces by Rózsa from Ben Hur and Spellbound. Waxman is represented by the music from Taras Bulba, a historical drama where Yul Brenner plays the legendary Cossack. Korngold’s Wagnerian roots are evident in a somewhat artificial suite derived from his music for Captain Blood, one of the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, which became a Korngold specialty.
The MSO throws itself with gusto into these reminders of a sometimes sad but undoubtedly important chapter of American musical cross-fertilization.