Tuesday, June 23, 2015

In Memoriam: James Horner

In previous posts, I’ve detailed how I entered the world of Classical music via the back door marked "film scores".  This started in 1977 with John Williams’ score for Star Wars, then Superman; and expanded to Jerry Goldsmith in 1979 with his score for the first Star Trek film.  (Coincidentally, I recently relistened to the first Star Wars score and was appalled how weak the playing of the London Symphony Orchestra was – with scrappy strings and repeatedly misfiring brass.) 

In 1982, a new name entered my pantheon of film composers: James Horner. 

Fresh out of USC, Horner got his start scoring documentaries for the American Film Institute in the late 1970s.  From there, he went on to score several small films, including Roger Corman’s schlock-fest Battle Beyond the Stars – the score was the best aspect of the movie.  His work got the attention of director Nicholas Meyer, who was looking for a composer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Partly on the basis of his work for Corman, partly because he could compose a score in four weeks – as opposed to the twelve weeks required by bigger names like Williams and Goldsmith – but mostly because his fee was lower, Horner was selected for Trek, which turned out to be one of the largest hits of 1982.  This is how Horner came to my attention.  Upon seeing the film (for which I waited in a long line the day after it opened), I purchased the soundtrack LP – which still graces my collection.  Horner’s work was impressive enough to Trek’s team that he was selected to score The Search for Spock in 1984.  Leonard Nimoy’s decision in 1986 to forego Horner for The Voyage Home, in favor of his old friend Leonard Rosenman, was ill-advised.  Rosenman’s score mishmashed Schonbergian pretentions with a cartoonish mentality and was the weakest aspect of an otherwise fine film.  It also went against the inner continuity of Trek’s de-facto trilogy.

Born in the United States, James Horner was raised in London, attended the Royal College of Music, and spoke with a British accent.  His music was cosmopolitan and adapted to the needs of the films he scored.  Horner’s scores covered a variety of genres, from the jazzy, strolling theme from Sneakers to the otherworldly dreamscape of Brainstorm.  His music for Field of Dreams has a uniquely American flavor, and his use of orchestration, repetition, and thematic metamorphosis take the movie’s emotional climax to a level that reaches straight for one’s heart.  Without Horner’s score, I doubt Field of Dreams would have become known as the film that made nearly every American male weep.  

Horner’s best known score is undoubtedly to James Cameron’s Titanic.  The director’s selection of Horner to score the film was counterintuitive – an epic film would normally call for a pompous, bombastic score.  But Horner’s scoring, which used an orchestra lightly enhanced by female chorus and synthesizers, was decidedly Irish-hued, briskly paced, and hovered around in major keys (until the ship hit the iceberg) and helped the three and a half hour film move along.

It has been disparagingly noted that Horner occasionally borrowed from other composers’ works (and often his own), far more liberally than most of his colleagues.  Two things are worth bearing out: film composers work under nearly impossible time crunches, and Horner was known as a “fast” composer who could deliver the work on time – an important consideration when an offset premiere date can mean the loss of millions of dollars; also, the actual uniqueness of the music itself must be secondary to its ability to enhance the action on screen.  Max Steiner’s scores were heavily influenced by Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss – and it can be argued they often distracted from the action on screen and lacked the physiological insight of Bernard Herrmann’s scores.  Just as Williams’ score for Star Wars is in influenced by Walton and Elgar, Horner’s scores (particularly the early works) are shadowed by Prokofiev – including paraphrasing from Alexander Nevsky and Romeo and Juliet.  But most often Horner borrowed from himself – one of his standard motifs involved a flatted 6th alternating with a natural 5th, played by the brass, usually to denote building tension.  Making repeated use of the same motif is in the tradition of Beethoven himself, whose three dots and a dash motif appeared in the Fourth Piano Concerto, and Appassionata Sonata, and throughout the Fifth Symphony.  Speaking of Beethoven, has anyone else noticed that the theme used in Titanic’s “Take her to Sea” sequence is based on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? 

Borrowing and all, I’ll take Horner’s work over the percussive hammering of Hans Zimmer and the empty gimmicks of Michael Giacchino any day.

The news of Horner’s death brought me more than the usual twinge of sadness.  Only 61, he had many years of creative live left to him.  As Grillparzer said of Schubert, “Here music has buried a treasure, but even fairer hopes.”

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The true cost of War

The Fallen of World War II from Neil Halloran on Vimeo.

World War II was the worst catastrophe to befall the human race. The percentage of people in the world who were wholly unaffected by this global conflict is comparatively small.  The Soviet Union, China, and Germany suffered disproportionately - although it can be said the Germans largely brought their fate upon themselves.  The British lost about one percent of their total population, including 43,000 killed in the Blitz.  The Americans lost about one-third of one percent of their population, almost exclusively military - the least in terms of percentage of any of the major powers.  Pointing this number out is not meant to denigrate the heroic conduct of our fighting men, particularly in the latter stages of the war.  But it's no exaggeration to say that the United States gained the most from the war, in terms of global and economic power, with the least blood shed.  The British wound-up bankrupt, parts of London decimated, their Empire collapsing. The Soviets lost nearly an entire generation of men.  It's no wonder they retained a buffer zone over Eastern Europe after the war.

No Purple Hearts have been manufactured since 1945, when the US military stocked up on them for the anticipated invasion of Japan.  To this day, Purple Hearts which are awarded to American military personnel derive from this old stock.  This fact belies the notion that Harry Truman's decision to use the Atomic Bombs against Japan was based on anything other than a desire the end the war as quickly as possible with the least lost of Allied personnel.

One small correction to one bit of information presented: The video refers, almost in passing, to "homosexuals" killed in the Holocaust.  In reality, it was homosexual men who were persecuted by the Nazis - who refused to acknowledge the presence of lesbians.  They felt that as long as Aryan women were available to impregnate to further the Master Race, it mattered not whether they were attracted to other women.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Horowitz's Scriabin - Toward the Flame

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Scriabin's death, Sony has published a compilation of Vladimir Horowitz's RCA and Columbia recordings of his works. Click here to read my review.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Smash Cut

Brad Gooch's memoir of his relationship with Howard Brookner and their life in New York has just been published. Click here to read my review

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ivo Pogorelich on DG

Deutsche Grammophone has reissued Ivo Pogorelich's complete recordings for that label. Click here to read my review.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Trip to London - final entry

I am devoting this, my last post on our trip to London, to brief descriptions of a number of places we visited during our trip.
The London Eye on the South Bank of the Thames  was intended as a temporary feature when it was constructed for the Millennium celebrations.  It quickly became one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and is now here to stay.  Although it has been described as a giant Ferris wheel, a cantilevered wheel is more accurate.  Unlike with a Ferris wheel, the cars are self-contained, do not dangle, and can accommodate a few dozen people (there were about eight people in our car).  I never had the slightest sensation of vertigo even as we approached the peak.  As it’s one of the tallest structures in London, the Eye offers a great way to take in much of London in one glance and get a lay of the land - I was able to get some good photos from there.  I recommend the London Eye as an early stop for first time visitors.

Photos from and of the London Eye
If you’re going to the Eye, it’s logical to also visit the London Dungeon next door, especially if you have kids (visitors to either attraction have the option to purchase tickets for both at a discount).  The Dungeon is a haunted house type attraction slanted toward the scarier parts of pre-20th Century London history – both historical (Jack the Ripper, Guy Fawkes), and fictional (Sweeney Todd).  It was all in good fun, but those with questionable hearts (and backs) should probably avoid the Drop Dead ride.
The Tower of London is one of the most famous sites one can visit in all of England.  So much history has occurred here, and the best way to learn about it is to wait for one of the periodic tours led by the iconic “beefeater” Yeoman Warders.  After the initial tour, which includes the Scaffold site where notables such as Anne Boleyn were executed, visitors are taken to the Royal Chapel (where visitors are reminded to remove their hats and “silence that instrument of the Devil, the Mobile phone”).  From there, visitors can roam on their own to such structures as the White Tower, which features collections of armor and armaments – including Henry VIII’s armor, which features an enormous codpiece that was symbolic of his rank.  Tickets are £24.50 so be sure you give yourself plenty of time to get your money’s worth for the visit.
The Tower of London -
Dan was very impressed with Henry VIII's "armor".

Entry to the London Zoo is expensive, £22 at the gate for adults, £16.50 for kids under 15.  The selection of animals is not especially noteworthy.  A quick summation is that if you’ve been to the Cleveland Zoo (entry to which is only $12.25 for adults, $8.25 for kids under 12), then you’ve no need to visit the London Zoo – at least that’s my impression after spending several hours there.
Dan & I did not partake of shopping at any of London’s more upscale stores.  Frankly, neither Selfridge’s, Harrods, nor Fortnum & Mason hold much interest for either of us.  We did visit Foyles and Waterstones bookstores, along with several independent shops – including Gay’s the Word.  I was reminded of my days living near Boston, when I’d spend hours perusing bookstores there – most of which are now sadly closed. 
We did, however, sample some of the gay nightlife in Soho.  Our favorite place was Village, which featured a very friendly staff and daily events.  Village has two main level bars, along with a basement bar with a small dance floor which opens on Saturday.  On our last night there, I was persuaded to do something I hadn’t done in over 20 years – sing Karaoke.  Dan joined me for a duet rendition of the theme to Goldfinger.  Despite its rather small footprint, Admiral Duncan is likely the most well-known gay bar in Soho – perhaps in all of London.  Both times we went there we found ourselves being hit on - which, as someone who’s pushing 50, I found rather flattering.  A nice way to cap off the evening was to head to Snog for a frozen yogurt.

At Admiral Duncan
Scenes from Village
Final thoughts…
Ages ago, my 8th Grade history teacher described Britain as “Socialist, that’s one step from Communist.”  (Then again, my 8th grade history teacher also said that Hitler was a homosexual and that Franklin Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance, both conspiracy theories that have been soundly refuted by the empirical evidence.)  Well, even with the presence of the NHS – which no politician would dare propose to abolish – the British would never refer to their nation as Socialist, and I heard their leaders specifically refer to their system as Capitalism while watching the news there (which is far more substantive than our news, by the way).  I saw more evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit, more “get up and go”, and more small businesses during my time in London than I’ve ever in any American city.  Those who read my blog with any regularity know I am an inveterate booster for redevelopment in Cleveland.  But ten days in London firmly put Cleveland’s fair-to-middling efforts in perspective.  We have a lot to learn.
Dan & I had a wonderful ten days in London.  We found the people to be kind without being obsequious.  Despite cautions I’d read in travel articles warning of crime, we felt completely safe.  Indeed, the biggest crime related story I heard about while in London was the mugging of a retiree in the lobby of his building – while there were several shootings in Cleveland during the same time period.   It’s worth pointing out that police in England, with rare exceptions, do not carry firearms.  Indeed, a proposal to arm them with Tasers is being met with some resistance.  London has a variety of cultural events, restaurants, nightlife, and tourist attractions that will appeal to anyone.  There’s always plenty to do here.  It’s also quite practical as a jumping off point for other areas of the UK.  But ten days afforded us barely enough time to scratch the surface.  There’s so much to see, from Abbey Road to Brighton to Stonehenge.  We will most assuredly visit there again. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Food, Glorious Food.

Forget everything you’ve heard about cuisine in England being dreary.  Forget as well about warm beer, it’s served nice and cold in London.  These two wives’ tales may stem from the immediate post-war years when England was still rationing food and other items.  It’s hard for Americans to comprehend how England suffered during World War II, when attacks on our own homeland have been exceedingly rare.   Imagine fourteen 9/11s spread out over eight months and you’ll get an idea of what it was like to live in London during the Blitz – and many smaller towns weren’t much better off.   As a percentage of total population, the UK’s blood loss was three times that of the US.  Unlike America, which enjoyed a post-war economic boom, the UK wasn’t much better off than post-war Germany.  It took England the better part of a decade before life returned to a semblance of normalcy.  But before I go off on a tangent, let’s get back to the subject at hand.
I must start with a disclaimer: Ten days is not nearly enough time to explore London’s culinary scene.  It would probably take years. 
Though we arrived in London to find that our hotel room had been upgraded to a townhouse with full kitchen, we did relatively little cooking.  Most of the items we purchased at the local Tesco revolved around snack food such as crisps and digestives – along with sodas and fruit juices.  (Tesco reminded me of Giant Eagle, right down to the dreaded self-service registers.  I’ll stick with Heinen’s any day.)  So, we generally dined out twice each day – a large breakfast and a late lunch.  Our hotel also offered complementary wine & cheese from 5:00-7:00pm each day, and we partook most evenings.  Between that and the bars we visited, I probably drank more in London than at any time since I was in my early 20s.
On our first morning in London, after we’d dropped off our luggage, we scouted around for a quick breakfast and found ourselves at, of all places, McDonald’s.  The differences between the American and English versions of Mickey Dee’s are minor – the bacon used on the Egg McMuffin is British rather than Canadian, and the egg is free-range and cooked a bit softer.  Note that you will be asked if you want ketchup or “brown sauce”, which is basically the British version of A1.  Much of London is populated by American restaurants, ranging from KFC to Chipotle, all the way up to TGI Fridays and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  Add to that The Book of Mormon, currently playing to sold-out houses in Piccadilly, and one can easily get the feeling that the Yanks have invaded.
On four occasions, we dined at The Cambridge, one of the many Nicholson’s pubs dotting London.  While the menu is basically the same everywhere, each location has its own ambience.  We chose The Cambridge based on proximity to our hotel – we could log onto the hotel’s Wi-Fi from there and get excellent reception, even though it was rather wonky from our rooms.  As the dining room is on the 2nd floor (British would call this the 1st storey, as the Ground floor is the Ground floor), we had a nice view of Cambridge Circus yet felt insulated from the London rush hour.  Nicholson’s pubs are an ideal choice if you want reasonably priced standard fare, including an English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, or just a pint at the bar.  The Fish & Chips featured a generous portion of the juiciest Cod I’ve ever enjoyed, lightly battered and cooked to crispy perfection.  They also have some classic English desserts such as Treacle Cake – a delicious concoction which I intend to import to our kitchen.  

English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, and Steak & Ale pie
For Dan’s birthday, we headed to Preto Rodizio Brazillian Steakhouse on Shaftsbury Avenue.  In anticipation of our dinner there, we avoided food during the day.  Preto offers the standard Churrascaria fare, similar to Cleveland’s Brasa: You’re given a coaster, green on one side, red on the other.  After starting with a salad and appetizers, the diner turns the coaster green side up.  A gaucho will then bring you a rotation of meat selections until you flip the coaster to the red side.  Since it was Dan’s birthday, we exercised restraint so we’d have room for dessert.  The wait staff was observant enough to place a candle on Dan’s dessert.  Preto is most definitely not a restaurant for vegans or those who prefer small portions, but for omnivores and those on the paleo diet, it’s essential dining.  We also discovered that the location is ideal for people watching.
La Bodega Negra was on the same block as our townhouse.  I would describe it as Fusion Mexican, moderately upscale.  The drinks menu is generous and the atmosphere is convivial. 
Dinner is served at La Bodega Negra
As the southern edge of Soho is also Chinatown, there were a number of Asian restaurants.  I advise approaching these with caution as there seemed to be a wide divergence in quality.  We sampled two buffets which were somewhat inferior to our own local Chinese buffet restaurants.  Also, unless otherwise noted, restaurants in England do not offer free refills on soft drinks.
An exception to that was Ed’s Easy Diner, which we went to on our last night in London.  There are actually several locations, but the one in Soho is the original.  This is a recreation of a classic 1950’s diner, an exercise in Americana which was quite popular.  Each time we passed it, the small space was completely filled.  The reason is simple: generous portions of burgers and fries, friendly service – and free refills on soft drinks.
Chiquito is in Leicester Square, so it’s an ideal place to dine before hopping onto the Tube.  We only went there once, for breakfast.  It says something about diversity in London that we enjoyed an English Breakfast in a Mexican restaurant, served to us by a Polish waitress.
Our townhouse was directly above a Bubble Tea shop.  I’d never tried it before, and doubt I will again.  The taste was nice enough, but I found the texture off-putting.
A note on tipping: Most restaurants include an automatic surcharge which seems to cover gratuity.  But we found it was usually around 10%, which to me is not an adequate tip if the service is good – so we usually supplemented it with cash.