5 Questions for Michael Giacchino

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This weekend, the American Youth Symphony will present a screening of Star Trek Into Darkness with the film score played live to picture. David Newman will conduct Michael Giacchino’s exhilarating score and Giacchino will be on hand for a pre-concert/screening Q&A with film music journalist (and frequent KUSC contributor) Jon Burlingame.

Details here.

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In advance of this weekend’s performance, I had a chance to catch up with the very busy Oscar-winning composer, Michael Giacchino, for a few questions.

BL: Live movie concerts are all the rage at major orchestras from Europe to the United States and beyond. They are extremely popular with audiences and a boon financially for the orchestras which present them. What do you make of the popularity these types of events?

MG: A large number of people are only exposed to orchestral music through film scores. It only makes sense that this material would find it’s way into the hands of orchestras and that film music should be a regular part of an orchestra’s repertoire. What better way to expose a broader audience to the power of live musicians then playing their favorite film music. I am thrilled that people are getting an opportunity to hear what it is like to be in a room with 80-90 musicians. They may come to hear the Chicago Symphony play Star Trek today, and decide to come back for Bach next week. I also think that as people’s home theaters become more sophisticated, the chance to see a film with a live orchestra in a place like the Royal Albert Hall offers something that simply cannot be replicated in their living room.

BL: As a composer of music for films, I would imagine these kinds of concerts would represent the best possible environment for audiences to experience your work. How does a finely-tweaked, impeccably recorded performance played over a movie theater sound system compare to the immediacy (and potential pitfalls) of live performance?

MG: Nothing compares to the energy of a live performance. Movies in the theater have the dialogue and sound effects mixed slightly differently than we have in the concert hall. We take great care to provide a perfect sound mix so it still feels like the film…however, in the concert hall you can’t help but notice that when Nero’s ship is approaching in Star Trek 09…there’s a lot of brass at work there.

BL: This concert is the first time the AYS will be performing an entire film score live to picture. What sorts of challenges will they encounter…and what advice would you give to the young musicians who have never done this before?

MG: They are going to be in the expert hands of David Newman who is a genius with this type of project. They will have a blast…probably their biggest challenge will be keeping their eyes off the screen and focused on the music. I’m kidding of course but I love watching the musicians follow along with the movie during their rests. I just want them all to relax and have fun. Maestro will keep them in sync.

BL: Much was made of your extremely busy summer with a trio of very high-profile releases [Tomorrowland, Jurassic World, Inside Out]. Does it ever slow down for you? Do you ever have down time? Or do you prefer having a jam-packed schedule? How difficult is it to balance multiple projects at once?

MG: Yes, once the films were released I had some time off in the summer. I went to some of the Star Trek performances, but I was able to take the time and work in my backyard. I do keep a very strict schedule even when I am working. I stop working at 6 and spend time with the kids. It is very important to keep that balance. Working on multiple projects at once is really a matter of scheduling. Luckily, this past year all the directors I worked with knew each other and did their best to keep the schedule so that I wouldn’t go crazy.

BL: Finally, slightly off topic, but KUSC is doing a week-long celebration of the music of Beethoven in a couple of weeks and we’re asking everyone we interview about their early encounters with the music of Beethoven. Has Beethoven’s music ever been an inspiration in your work? Is there a specific piece by Beethoven that is particularly close to your heart?

MG: I love Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata – just magical.  It’s almost like film music before film music existed.  Of course who can forget the 9th Symphony? I often have wondered how many people were introduced to this piece of music by hearing it first in the movie Die Hard?

Kicking Brass: An Interview with the LA Phil’s Andrew Bain and Thomas Hooten

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Thomas Hooten and Andrew Bain. Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

This week’s LA Philharmonic radio broadcast on Classical KUSC features two concerto performances by two LA Phil brass principals. Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet, will play Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat. Andrew Bain, principal French horn, will play Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4. Before the performance, which was recorded in February 2015, I sat down with Hooten and Bain backstage at Walt Disney Concert Hall to ask them about life in the LA Phil and their upcoming solo appearances with the orchestra.

I began by asking them each what they liked best about each other’s playing.

Andrew Bain: One of the great things about Tom—I mean, he plays with a beautiful sound and is incredibly musical—but his attention to detail and his constant desire to get the best result out of any sort of situation is really inspiring. It inspires me and it inspires the colleagues around him and definitely his section. I think it’s a really great part of his personality and a great trait. We aspire to that level as well.

Thomas Hooten: The first thing that comes to mind about Andrew’s playing is, I always get this sense that he’s in the moment of the music. He’s not in any rush. He seems really concerned about making the phrase as good as it can be. And I think that, for me—in relation to what he said about me—I’m always striving and driving to do the best I can, but it’s a nice reminder when I hear him play to take time, to make sure that you’re in the moment. And I think that’s really important for the listener. You can tell when Andrew comes in, in the orchestra we get this sense of, I wouldn’t say calm, but of breath. And it’s nice.

BL: How important is camaraderie and chemistry among the principals in the brass section?

Andrew Bain: That’s a good question, actually. I think a good, cohesive working environment is really important. And if people are friends outside of that, than that’s an extra advantage. But, I think more important is that people are striving for the same goals and that we’re working together to achieve a really great result. And I think we’re very fortunate that we have that. I think we have that in the entire brass and horn section. Everyone’s really wanting to see the growth of the section as we add new people. With the influx of new principals, that can be a challenging change for members of sections and for the rest of the orchestra, but everyone is definitely invested in getting the best result that we can.

Thomas Hooten: I would say, throughout orchestras in the country, there’s a wide variety of high artistic product and varying degrees of camaraderie. I would think, in the most logical outlook of it, that the more you get along, the more potential there is for greatness. I think orchestras are really good at hiring the best people—we have a process in place that makes sure there’s lots of vetting out—but, the potential after that of somebody actually learning to communicate with others in a way that inspires each other and also is a conduit for discovery: I think we have that here [at the LA Phil]. Through this process of us acquiring new people, I think that’s something that we’re looking for. Looking for new people that not only play great, but become citizens of the orchestra and what we want to do together.

BL: You guys both make your living at the back of the orchestra. What’s it like to take a turn up front in the soloist’s spotlight?

Thomas Hooten: I remember the first time I played a solo with a professional group—it was with the United States Marine Band—and we played From the Shores of the Mighty Pacific, by Herbert L. Clarke. The band started and I just remember jumping out of my skin because I hadn’t been at the very front of a group and heard that much sound, and I’ll never forget how juiced I was: “Wow, this is going to be amazing!” So [with the LA Phil] I’m looking forward to that and getting really close to the violins and hearing all the energy from them.

Andrew Bain: For the horn player it’s really fun, because we’re always at the back. To be up at the front and to actually be able to see the faces of the audience—that’s fun. And to see them when you empty the little bit of water, to see the look of panic and to feel the violins move back three paces when you play the first note, because the horn is loud, and it points backwards so they end up in the slipstream a little bit. It’s a lot of fun.

Photo by CD Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

Photo by CK Dexter Haven, allisyar.com

BL: Tom, the Trumpet Concerto by Joseph Haydn that you’re playing with the LA Phil…as I understand it, this was a piece that was designed to show off a bit of trumpet valve technology, is that correct?

Thomas Hooten: Almost right. The trumpet it was written for was a keyed trumpet, so it was very close to when they developed valves. That’s one of the interesting parts about this piece: when it was written, this keyed trumpet was a new invention. The horn didn’t actually sound that good. It was basically like a natural trumpet that had keys in it that would help certain pitches come out, which is why you can play half-steps and more partials in the lower harmonic series. This piece was written in 1796 and wasn’t premiered until 1800 and then wasn’t played again for, like, a hundred years. … I think probably why it didn’t get played that much was because it just wasn’t that good of a sound yet. But the subtleties of half-steps and stuff are absolutely interwoven into the piece itself and, in that respect, it’s a pioneering piece for the history of the trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

Markus Würsch playing the keyed trumpet.

BL: Thinking about that idea: even if it didn’t sound great on that instrument [the keyed trumpet], these are sounds, musically, that people weren’t used to hearing from a trumpet either. So, the concerto was super-new, modern music in its time.

Thomas Hooten: Right. The first notes of the concerto show you, “I can play an E-flat scale now.” And people probably said, “Wow, that’s amazing! This is so exciting!” Haydn has these whole themes throughout where the trumpet is going from a note in the harmonic series and then a half-step away. So, the significance of that, hopefully, isn’t lost on the audience. … The other thing I’m excited about is I commissioned a new cadenza for this concerto, written by James Stephenson, a composer who has been incredibly prolific in the last 10 years for brass in general. So, I’m excited about that. It’s a really fun cadenza: pushes the limits of what I can do. I’m excited about offering a new addition to Haydn cadenzas and hopefully people will like it and trumpet players will try it and not curse me for making it hard. [laughs]

BL: Andrew, the Mozart Horn Concerto No. 4 that you’re performing has an interesting story behind it as well. Who was this cheese shop-owning, French horn-playing Leutgeb guy anyway?

Andrew Bain: Leutgeb and Mozart had this banter-ful relationship, so Mozart tended to write a lot of [messages to Leutgeb] in the score—mostly abusive to poor Leutgeb. [laughs] Basically, the Mozart horn concerti are very fun, playful pieces. The fourth concerto is, in many ways, the deepest musically. It’s just an incredibly fun, happy piece. The slow movement is incredibly beautiful and has lots of lovely lyrical lines. But, yeah, Mozart just found this cheese monger guy that could play the horn and he wrote some pieces and that’s what it is. It’s not incredibly deep, serious music, but it’s incredibly beautiful and very much the essence of Mozart’s writing.

BL: Mozart seemed to always know what worked for a specific instrument. He obviously didn’t play the French horn, but does it sit nicely? Does it fit well?

Andrew Bain: Yeah, absolutely. It’s written in the key of E-flat [major], which always at the first rehearsal, at least half a dozen of the violinists will come up and say, “Ugh, E-flat?!” Because E-flat for the strings isn’t the most comfortable key. But for the horn it sits beautifully. In terms of the register, it actually works very well for the instrument. On the modern horn, it works very well because the fingering combinations actually work very well. On the natural horn, of course, you don’t have to worry about that, but it actually lies very well on the instrument. There are many ways you can play it. As the horn has evolved, the piece seems to for any sort of combination of generation of instruments that we use.

BL: And you use a modern horn?

Andrew Bain: Yeah. A modern double horn with three valves and a thumb valve. Blow in the small end and hope that it works! [laughs]

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

Photo by Gennia Cui via andrewbainhorn.com

BL: Back to the orchestra…who is sitting in the hotter seat? Principal trumpet or principal French horn?

Thomas Hooten: I think it depends on the week. In all honesty, some of the things that Andrew has to do: the delicateness and going between being on top of the horn section and an incredibly loud brass section to literally seconds later blending with the woodwind section in the most delicate transparent [music]. That’s pretty scary. That being said, sometimes the trumpet seat can be just as scary. But, I look at his job and I think you got to have nerves of steel to be able to navigate that. That’s one of the things I really admire about Andrew is that he really goes between those roles in a beautiful way. Not in an ego-driven way, but really what serves the music best. So, I don’t know. I’m not going to say. Except maybe him. [laughs]

Andrew Bain: [laughing] I mean, I wouldn’t want to play the [trumpet solo in the] opening of Mahler 5. That’s some scary stuff.

Thomas Hooten: Especially since you don’t sound good on trumpet.

Andrew Bain: Yeah, I know! And Tom has actually heard me play the beginning of Mahler 5 on the trumpet, so he can categorically state how bad that sounds.

Thomas Hooten: Was that on a horn mouthpiece or was that a trumpet mouthpiece? I can’t remember.

Andrew Bain: It was actually a trumpet mouthpiece, but the thing is, I actually played it on a rotary trumpet, but it sounded like a piston trumpet. [laughs] I have a unique gift when it comes to trumpet playing. … It’s so difficult to compare [the principal horn and principal trumpet seats]. I mean, I like my job because of the flexibility and because I get to play a lot of the stuff with the winds and with the brass and with the strings. And it’s good fun to be adjusting to whatever’s going on in the orchestra. But I certainly think, there are moments when the trumpet is sitting on top of the orchestra and if things don’t sound how they’re supposed to sound, 2,300 people are going to find out about it. [laughs] And that, in itself, is exciting as well. This is where I think you need a special character and a special personality to be a principal trumpet player. You need to want to have that moment. We’re very fortunate that we have Tom because he loves that role and it really suits him and he sounds fantastic. So, they’re different roles and they’ve got their different scary and rewarding parts and I think you could probably say that about several other positions in the orchestra too.

Street Symphony’s Musical Activism: “We’re creating deeply vulnerable spaces where we’re allowed to feel.”

Gupta“To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” ~Robert Schumann

Schumann’s simple creed has become the mission of a group of local musicians and musical activists known as Street Symphony: the brainchild of LA Philharmonic violinist Vijay Gupta, who tells me it grew out of a relationship he had with Nathaniel Ayers—the Juilliard-trained musician, whose battles with schizophrenia had left him homeless, living on Skid Row. Ayers’ story was chronicled in columns in the LA Times by Steve Lopez, which became the book and eventually the movie, The Soloist.

VG: “Alongside a number of LA Phil I became one of Nathaniel’s friends. First his friend, and then he started asking for violin lessons from me. So, the beginning was him trudging up to Walt Disney Concert Hall and us working together in a practice room. And this is an event that really opened my life and opened my world because I witnessed Nathaniel have a manic episode in a practice room at Walt Disney Concert hall holding a violin. The only thing we had in common at that moment was that I was also holding a violin. So, we started to make music together. I started to play for him and he started to play back to me; and it was the beginning of this relationship that we had. Eventually, I started to visit Nathaniel on Skid Row and I started to go to him [for our lessons]. Along with the geography of the lessons changing, I think the role of the mentors actually changed. Because, I started to learn a lot from Nathaniel. I started to learn about Skid Row, how horrifying it is, how real it is, and how close it is. It was a place where words failed. And yet, it was in this place, that Nathaniel showed me that he could still make music with me, I could still make music with him, and we could still communicate in the same way we did at Walt Disney Concert Hall. And that music was this incredible language that transcends barriers and breaks barriers. It doesn’t matter where it’s placed, if it’s within the context of human empathy.” Continue reading

Yo-Yo Ma: “Part of creativity is accepting all the things we don’t know, because that’s when you start to explore.”

ImageThe Urban Dictionary definition is as follows:

goat rodeo (noun): 1. A chaotic situation, often one that involves several people, each with a different agenda/vision/perception of what’s going on.

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s definition is a little bit different: “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” It’s a proposition that is equal parts skill, logic, and luck. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is an album from a quartet of world-class musicians that tests the limits of all three of these elements.Image

As if heading into a recording studio and rolling tape on this chance-based experiment wasn’t dangerous enough, Yo-Ya Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan have taken the show on the road and are doing it live. They’ll be at the Hollywood Bowl Sunday night.

Recently, I caught up with Yo-Yo Ma to ask him about this idea of music that comes together against all odds, taking risks on stage, and trying new musical things. You can listen to the conversation here, read the transcript below, or catch the radio feature Saturday at 8a on KUSC’s Arts Alive.

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BL: I’d like to start with something that Chris Thile told me a while ago. He likes to talk about how there should be no genre distinctions in music: he uses the terms “formal” and “informal,” meaning formal music is written down; informal music is not written down. How do you feel about that? Are genres helpful?

YYM: I think that is a very interesting question. In order to learn, we have to make categories–“I like this; I don’t like this”–but in order to keep learning, you actually have to take away the categories and form new ones. So it is a constant process. Continue reading

Remixing the Rite

It’s not every day that electronic music DJs dabble in the classical music realm…but often, when they do, the results are less than thrilling.

Okay…Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross won an Oscar for that last one—a remix of In the Hall of the Mountain King, from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

“There’s this increasing wave in my part of music of the lack of respecting an original work for what it is,” says Stefan Goldmann, a DJ and composer of electronic music who lives in Berlin. He told me, he struggles with the idea of DJs remixing other people’s work.

StefanGoldmann1“So, someone composes a piece of music in a certain way and somebody else just instantly says, ‘Oh, I can do better,’ and changes it around? At some point, I thought, why would everybody just change what I do as a music composer and producer to suit some different idea and we never get to hear the original anymore?” Continue reading

Kenneth Turan on 2013 Oscar Nominations

Here I am chatting with LA Times and Arts Alive film critic Kenneth Turan about this year’s Oscar nominations. Surprises, omissions, and *gasp* perhaps a snub in a minor category?

For more from Turan, including his thoughts on the 1971 Claude Sautet policier Max et les Ferrailleurs, tune into Arts Alive this Saturday morning at 8:00 on Classical KUSC.

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Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic on Stravinsky’s Rite

This weekend, the LA Philharmonic performs Igor Stravinsky’s seminal masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, with music director Gustavo Dudamel. The concerts mark the opening of the 2012-13 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I spoke with Dudamel as well as several members of the LA Phil about what it’s like to perform The Rite. Here are a few of my favorite moments from those conversations.

And a bit more from Dudamel:

Hear more here. Read more here and here.