Ahead of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s America at the Movies concert, we talk to the conductor about the joys and challenges of programming film music
Conductor Robert Ziegler has made a name as one of the foremost conductors of film music – and tomorrow, Wednesday 18 September, there’s a chance to hear him in action with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a programme of American music from the silver screen. We asked him about the treats in store…
This concert, which is presented by film critic Mark Kermode, includes music by Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and Danny Elfman, as well as music from The Magnificent Seven. How did you go about choosing the programme?
It was partly process of elimination since the concert is part of the BBC's Sound of Cinema season so we didn’t want to duplicate music. The only stipulation from the producer was that he wanted Leonard Bernstein’s On the Waterfront because it’s a great piece and a substantial piece for the orchestra. But, acutally, none of the pieces on the programme are frivolous, they all engage the orchestra, myself and the listener fully. I wanted to do something by Miklós Rósza, who I think is a wonderful composer, and I settled on the Spellbound Concerto, which was his proudest achievement – and I’m a big Hitchock fan. Bernard Herrmann figures with two pieces – one is the last piece that he wrote for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Drive, which never fails to make a huge impression. And the other piece is the Suite from Vertigo, which is one of the high watermarks of film music for me.
There’s also a theremin player on the programme information – Lydia Kavina. What piece will she be involved in?
The theremin is that funny electrical instrument that you don’t touch, you just play the air. It’s used in the Spellbound Concerto and I wanted to give Lydia a little more to do, so programmed Howard Shore’s lovely Theme from Ed Wood.
And there’s some John Williams in there too – The Raiders March. Tell us about that…
John Williams is one of the few people who has nearly spanned the entire history of great film music. He started as a session musician and gradually worked his way up the ladder and finally started working as an artist in the ’60s and ’70s. Now, of course, he dominates film music – and with good reason, because he’s a really fabulous composer.
Is it difficult to find film music that is rewarding for the orchestra to play in the concert hall?
It’s always a problem with film music to find things that match the depth of symphonies and that sort of musical discourse – it can sound like background music because of course, a lot of film music is background music. But you have to allow it to stand on its own two feet. You don’t have that symphonic argument, you have more description. What great film music does is magnify and reflect what’s on screen. Great film composers can really capture the mood in just a few notes, so that’s the thing to focus on.
Do you think film music is under-appreciated by the classical world?
It sets out to achieve a completely different result. When you’re working in film, you’re one cog in the machine, whether you like it or not. Sometimes – as in the case of John Williams and Steven Spielberg or other partnerships like Nino Rota and Federico Fellini – music just brings the whole creation to life. Fellini used to say that his favourite part of the production process was the music session. These are great composers, they’ve just chosen to dedicate themselves to working in film.
BBC National Orchestra of Wales's 'America at the Movies' is live on Radio 3 from St David's Hall, Cardiff tomorrow, 18 September, and will be available on iPlayer afterwards. For more information, head to the 'Sound of Cinema' season website
Photo: Matthew Andrews/www.robertziegler.co.uk