James Newton Howard – Frankfurt 2017 – Concert review and interview
The tour James Newton Howard has been conducting during November-December 2017, called “3 Decades of Music for Hollywood” has ended, and Gorka Oteiza was in the final concert performed in Frankfurt, bringing you this concert review and an exclusive interview with maestro James Newton Howard for SoundTrackFest.
James Newton Howard has been quite fond of live events in Europe in the last years. He broke the ice being the main honoree of Hollywood in Vienna in 2015 with half a concert dedicated to his music (read article here), he came again to Bilbao in 2016 (read article here) and started a whole tour in 15 European cities called “3 Decades of Music for Hollywood” in November 2017 (read news here).
It was clear that this tour could be a special occasion to listen to a good compilation of his film music live, something that was not the same as in the previous concerts, because even being good concerts (some better than others), they had a mix of music from other composers or mix of music from his concert works.
The excellent reviews of the debuting concert of this 2017 tour at the Royal Albert Hall in London, made my decision to attend one of the concerts even clearer, so checking calendars and options, I decided I’d go to the final concert of the tour, the one at Frankfurt at the Jahrhunderthalle.
Previous to the concert, James Newton Howard was kind enough to grant 10 minutes of his time for some questions for SoundTrackFest, that you can find at the end of this article, so let’s start now with the concert review.
The event venue (Jahrhunderthalle) is not one of the most used venues in Frankfurt for concerts as I was told when I asked in the city, as they mostly use Festhalle Messe Frankfurt for massive concerts or Alte Oper for more intimate events (a classical concert hall venue). So we could say that Jahrhunderthalle was a good balance between the option to fit as many people as possible under one roof and the good concert facilities.
The building, that’s quite apart from the city center in a zone that is not very easily reached by public transport (especially at night), is a good looking half dome structure with the capacity for up to 4.800 people. Once you get inside and go up one floor, you find yourself thinking you’ve entered a planetarium due to the round shape of the hall and the perimeter walls.
There you could find a small merchandising shop where you could buy the official program for 15€ and some shirts, mugs, and keychains. The seats, quite comfortable and organized by levels, had a good visibility of the stage, where the choir and the orchestra would be accommodated with a giant screen hanging over them. Before starting the show, that screen was showing publicity of other shows and the logo of the tour being alternatively. The place started to get crowded after 7:30 p.m., getting nearly full when the concert time was reached (I would say that around 80-90% of the tickets were sold).
When it was 5 minutes past 8 p.m. the concert started with the following program:
The first piece to be played was Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – Main Titles, a perfect introduction to the concert: powerful and dynamic. Anyway, just when we were a couple of minutes in the middle of the performance, I sensed an over-amplification on the left side loudspeakers. I suppose the acoustics of the venue and the format of the concert made amplification totally necessary, but the string section sounded higher than it should through the speakers, covering the real string section sound (I was on 6th row of the second block, so I was not very close neither too far, and the sound felt a bit unnatural for the distance). Even soft movements and like pages turning could be slightly noticed if it a silent section was being performed. Anyway, your ears come fresh at the beginning of a concert and it’s easier to notice this kind of details; details that got diluted during the performance, and didn’t lessen the overall experience at all, as it was a great concert, as you will read.
With no pause, the following suite came, a selection of four pieces from Snow White and the Huntsman, that were perfectly performed by the orchestra, assuring us the quality we could expect for the rest of the concert. During the performance, on the big screen, scenes and videos of the pieces played were shown. Those professional and hi-quality video montages were mostly silent, but some sections had sound effects and dialogues (English with German subtitles), cleverly set and chosen, and cleverly balanced with a very low volume so the orchestra & choir’s sound could prevail. The important part was the music, not the movie!
The transitions between the four pieces of the suite were perfect, with the synchronization of the music and images perfectly timed, demonstrating that the practice makes the perfection, and after many concerts, both conductor and orchestra tend to become one.
A huge applause for a very good concert beginning was delivered, followed by a pause with James Newton Howard picking the microphone to thank the audience in German and then start telling a story. He said it was a long time since he was in front of an orchestra for a whole concert, and even more in a tour, and he remembered how in 1976 during a recording session and after several takes for a cue, the concertmaster recommended him to leave the studio and let the orchestra work alone as he was too distracting! James said he got in shock and didn’t conduct again for a long time, and he hoped his conducting skills had improved since then. For what we had seen and for what it was yet to come, I can tell you that they really had!
It was the moment for a thematic block dedicated to The Hunger Games, having first the music from Catching Fire – Katniss / Peacekeepers and then Mockingjay Part 2 – Rebels Attack with a fantastic video montage & accompanying light effects, and a strong percussion section showing that the amplification had a purpose. To finish this block, triumphant and glorious Horn of Plenty was played (a piece not from James Newton Howard himself, only the arrangements, but very important in the movies and cleverly placed at the end), followed from a thunderous applause from the public!
Next, Peter Pan – Fairy Dance / Flying / Peter Returns delivering 6 minutes of a continuous suite (like all the other suites that were composed of several smaller pieces), and that was performed tender and melodic, capturing the spirit of the children that don’t want to grow up.
Following another pause was made, with James Newton Howard taking the microphone again to talk about his collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan that was going to be the common thread of the next three pieces. He first explained how when composing the music for Signs he had a three-note motif in his head, and presented it to the director, who liked it and asked him to develop that concept, but letting it carry the good and the bad moments, being able to use it on several different occasions. James left the podium and sat at the piano to play those notes and then started changing them to show different moods, but without altering the essence. A fantastic practical lesson of scoring movies!
He returned back to the podium, raised his baton, and the orchestra started to play Signs – Main Titles followed by The Sixth Sense – Suicide Ghost / Cole’s Secret and ending with The Last Airbender – Flow Like Water, a wonderful and breathtaking piece that increases the level of intensity as it progresses. Overall a big block of more than 12 minutes, with no pauses between the pieces that felt organically connected, accompanied by images from all the movies where M. Nigh & James had collaborated together, even if they weren’t in the suite (such as After Earth or Lady in the Water). Maybe it was the best moment of the night!! (or at least one of the best, and there were many to choose from!)
James Newton Howard took the microphone again to talk about Lawrence Kasdan and how they’re good friends that started to collaborate long time ago. Rescuing one of those collaborations, he introduced the music from Wyatt Earp “a dream of every American composer, to compose at least once in a lifetime for a western”, as he jokingly said. So, next piece was a suite that had two themes: Wyatt Earp – Main Title / The Wedding that delivered the western tone the audience was expecting, in a fantastic performance.
And when it was nearly 9:00 p.m., one hour after the beginning, one final piece was performed, one that was not in the printed program: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – The Hanging Tree. James Newton Howard has been conducting a singing contest to find female singers for this song in his European tour (read more here), leading to some different singers to join the shows depending on the city, and today in Frankfurt a lady named Hannah was the chosen one. The performance was fine, but I think I found her voice too strong and not broken enough, as the one we can listen in the movie when Jennifer Lawrence sings the song. A voice that should depict a girl tired of her situation and her world, but still getting energy to continue fighting and calling out her people. Anyway, the performance was fine and the choir joined her during the song till the finale, giving a good ending to the first act.
After a 25 minute break, at 9:30 p.m. the second act of this wonderful concert started and it did with a fantastic piece: Dinosaur – Inner Sanctum / The Egg Travels which didn’t deliver a very good rhythmic beginning by the woodwind section of the orchestra, that was later corrected and pushed forward by the other sections and choir in the rest of this beautiful suite.
James Newton Howard took the microphone once more, and he first talked about Dinosaur, a movie he confessed he did for his kids, to let them think he was a cool dad… 17 years ago… Now those kids have grown up and he said today he wouldn’t do it again, but recognizes that the movie and the effects have stood quite well the aging. Next, he continued talking to give a new film scoring lesson with the movie King Kong. There he collaborated with Peter Jackson and he was brought into the projects when there were only 4 weeks left, and even if he knew it was going to be crazy, he accepted it and now he’s glad he did. He said he kept writing music, but couldn’t find the tone for a key scene, in which King Kong stares at the female protagonist in the middle of the 5th avenue. The music was supposed to depict platonic love, but he couldn’t find the right way to convey it. Peter Jackson asked him to do a 10 minute piano improvisation that night after work, and to send it to him. Next day Peter came saying, “there’s a bit I like… around the 7th minute… those three seconds…”. James, was surprised, but used them as a skeleton and expanded those three seconds into a whole theme. What a craft! After the introduction, the final scene was shown on screen, just as it appears in the movie but only with sound effects, no music. When the scene ended, James went back to the podium and conducted the orchestra to demonstrate the power of music. Another great film scoring lesson!
The orchestra played the suite King Kong – Central Park / Captured with a soft, platonic and melodic first part that reached into an action cue perfectly timed and executed by the orchestra, showing the fight of Kong and the male protagonist for the girl in the island.
James Newton Howard left the podium again and explained a little story about how Pretty Woman was going to be called initially 3.000 (the amount of money Richard Gere was going to pay for Julia Roberts’ services) and then it changed to Pretty Woman (a name James did not really like… at the beginning). He sat at the piano and played Dave – Dave’s Theme and continued playing piano till the orchestra started with Pretty Woman – He Sleeps. He left the piano and went back to conducting what was going to be the beginning of another thematic block dedicated to Julia Roberts, with images from her movies that ended with My Best Friend’s Wedding – The Chase. Very good performance and fantastic video montage, once more!
Next, James Newton Howard talked about movies that didn’t work so well commercially but that have a special place in a composer’s heart, and that way he introduced Snow Falling on Cedars – Tarawa that was performed with violin and cello duet at the beginning, followed shortly by the orchestra and later with the choir to give all the intensity and emotion to the piece, and ending in a powerful drum solo. Very good!
Another story came for the next piece from The Village, a movie that James had scored initially as an action movie, without realizing that the important piece of the story was the love behind it, so he had to re-write many parts of the score, and found important to give voice to the protagonist through the violin. With the whole intensity and message of the piece delivered by concertmaster, The Village – The Gravel Road was played, a theme that was good and correct but that I personally think reached a higher emotional level in the performance delivered in Hollywood in Vienna – 2015.
And now, something completely different. James sat at the piano again but not to perform but to tell a story, the story of his life, a story he called ‘The Limitless Possibilities of Life’ that started with him learning piano and dropping it to pursue other goals, getting to how he ended touring with Elton John and later to composing for movies. A fantastic story told in 4 minutes, which had nice background music and a wonderful cartoon video depicting step by step what James was telling. Another of the big moments of the night! A great applause followed and afterwards he stood on the piano to perform one the pieces he composed long time ago.
The night continued with the orchestra addressing a suite of Blood Diamond – London / Solomon Vandy that was joined by singer Velile Mchunu, who gave a fantastic performance with her voice and who also delivered a funny moment after finishing, when James asked her to teach him to pronounce her surname correctly.
It was time to talk about collaborations with other composers and James pointed out his friendship and longtime collaboration with Hans Zimmer, explaining how when the music for The Dark Knight was composed, Hans was in charge of the themes for the Joker while he was in charge of the themes for Harvey Dent. And thus, the next piece came The Dark Knight – The Harvey Dent Suite, shadowy and strong, that had very good light effects.
And before ending the official program, James Newton Howard thanked the Oradea State Philharmonic Choir, the choirmaster Zsolt Lászlóffy, The Czech National Symphony Orchestra, the concertmistress Helena Jiříkovská and both singers (Velile & Hannah) that made that special night possible; a final night part of a magical tour, that as he said, had been a life-changing experience after so many years locked in his studio.
With a message of good wishes and a prosper and happy musical life to the audience, James introduced the next theme, one that had a special sense of healing for him, a healing so needed in this hectic world (as he said); it was the suite of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them including Inside the Case / You’re One of Us Now / The Occamy / Newt Releases the Thunderbird.
A suite that lasted 7 minutes with several tone changes but with a common melodic base that got the best out of the orchestra and choir. A final musical explosion accompanied by images of the movie where the city is rebuilt (thus the healing sense of his words) and later with logos of all the movies that were musically part of the night at the final seconds. A perfect and brilliant ending for the concert!
But that wasn’t really the end. The audience stood up and clapped and cheered, knowing a fantastic concert had been witnessed, and the composer didn’t want to make them beg too much so after the initial salute of all the cast, he went back to his podium to conduct a suit of Maleficent, perfect and delightful. As it was the final concert of the tour, after a second round of big applauses, James Newton Howard came out again and said “ok, ok, it’s the last night, I’m not going to play hard to get”, people laughed and he raised the baton to a really desired second encore; the wonderful, sensitive and heartwarming music of The Prince of Tides, a marvelous pice that lasted nearly 6 minutes, ending the night past 11:00 p.m., after a wonderful 3-hour concert we will remember for a long time!
The concert format was just perfect. In three hours (intermission included) we had a fantastic revision of James Newtown Howard’s career and music including the most important highlights and collaborations. The visual montages specifically made for the occasion were perfectly crafted and incredibly sharply timed with the music; you could notice this was the final concert of the tour and many other performances had helped to deliver such synchronization. The light effects were very helpful and supported correctly the image on many occasions, and weren’t intrusive at all, like it uses to happen in other shows.
If there’s any negative point it could be the over-amplification, that could be felt at the beginning of the concert, but then you got used to it and was not bothering at all. The performance of the Czech National Symphony Orchestra and the Oradea State Philharmonic Choir was excellent and James’ conducting was also very good, sharp and precise.
Having James Newton Howard pause in between pieces (not every piece, sometimes blocks of a couple of pieces), giving insight information of how the score was created or the people or situation that was behind every moment, was really interesting, as he was telling the story of his life through his movies, and that made the audience appreciate the music that was coming even more.
I really loved the 4-5 minutes of “The Limitless Possibilities of Life” passage and the message it delivers: you never know what can happen in the future if you follow your gut. In James’ case, his gut brought him to a wonderful career of 3 decades of music for Hollywood, that led him to his first and we hope that not last European tour!
INTERVIEW WITH JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
Good night James and thanks for taking a brief moment to answer some questions from SoundTrackFest before the concert!
You’re welcome. Let’s go for it, we don’t have much time! (*Laughs*)
Ok! Here I go! Tonight is the last concert of your tour “3 Decades of Music for Hollywood” that has been around Europe in the last month in 15 cities. How do you feel about it? Did it go as you expected?
I’ve been thinking about this tour, and what I wanted to communicate, and what it was going to mean to me, as it was the first time I was dragged out of the studio in decades. One of the things that crossed my mind is that I had spent so many years telling other people’s stories, that in the process, I’ve told my own story, and this is what this show means to me. It’s my story through my music.
The experience has been amazing and the reaction of the people is fantastic, they loved this tour. The opening concert at the Royal Albert Hall was something incredible. But it’s been a challenging experience. In a funny way, I felt that I got a clearer sense of who I am by doing these performances live, because I just felt like uniquely on my own. It’s a different kind of show, that’s been somehow a combination of different musical forces. It’s been great, I really learned a lot, but I’m looking forward to taking a break.
Did touring now bring you back the sensations you felt years ago when you were with all those artists like Elton John? Do you feel like going back to your roots?
Well, not the same, because when was with Elton I was just playing keyboards, I was a sideman. So when you’re the star of the show it’s different, there’s a lot of responsibility on you and you’re in a position where a lot of people are depending on your energy. And you have to keep it up even when you don’t feel like it’s up, because otherwise, everybody else sinks. But it’s been great!
So partially, you’re going to feel relieved after tonight’s concert…
I’m going to feel sad too! You know, the people that talked me into doing this, GEA (General Entertainment Associates), they contacted me just at the right time because I was tired of what I was doing. It’s nice to change your routine. So they called me at a time when I said. “You have all these movies out there, why don’t you go and make them live? Yeah, let’s do it!”. So the timing was just perfect.
Talking about all those movies you have out there… You have a lot of music for a concert…
Too much! (*laughs*)
It’s never too much (*laughs*). Well, how do you do the selection? Because you have to limit to a duration and maybe leave some pieces that would like to be in the concert. How was the process?
It was very difficult, and let me tell you that some things that were not popular in the states were quite popular here. There are scores that I would have liked to have done that I didn’t have the time. Even now the show is three hours long. It’s a long show. But it’s very hard to leave out music. I don’t know, what would I leave out… Pretty woman? Hunger Games? You know, they’re all worthwhile and they all represent different stages of my career.
Your movies are like your children, you love them and it’s difficult to leave them out of the show…
Yeah, but some of my children… I don’t love them as much as others (*laughs*)
In the last three years, you had three big concerts in Europe (if we consider the whole tour as one concert), first with Hollywood in Vienna in 2015, Bilbao 2016 and this tour in 2017. How would you compare those concerts and their contents?
Well, they have three different formats and three different circumstances. Eventually, I would love to perform my own violin concerto with James Ehnes or with somebody else, like I did in Bilbao… that may happen. Hollywood in Vienna was great, but between then and now I wrote Fantastic Beasts, that became a big part of the program. I don’t remember exactly what we did in Vienna but we did similar material, but we did different arrangements for instance. So I’m doing things a little differently now and I think this program’s been really strong and it’s received very well.
Is there some piece that’s not in the program that you would like to be in the program?
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to putting Red Sparrow in the program, which is the movie I just finished with Jennifer Lawrence. I recorded it six weeks ago and I think it’s one of my best scores and something I’m really interested in. I would also have liked to put something of Lady in the Water and maybe something from Waterworld. I’d have to look at the list again, there’s a bunch and I forget about them (*laughs*).
I could also do a whole concert with a small ensemble, like twenty strings and two guitars and bass and drums… that would be fun too!
That looks like a good idea, maybe for 2018, for a next tour…
I’m not sure if I’ll be doing something like this again in 2018… I’ll be pretty busy!
As you said earlier, the beginning of the tour at the Royal Albert Hall was something special, but does any other moment/place of the tour bring you special memories?
That one was incredible, and I would say that the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg two nights was also incredible. The place is beautiful and to be in that environment and just looking around was fantastic. It also sounded so incredible… we did two shows on the same day and the audience is like they’re on stage with you, so that was very special. We also did a great concert in Antwerp (Belgium) and I’m sure tonight will also be special.
Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, Ramin Djawadi, and now you, are composers that are going on tour with their music live, and live events like concerts or festivals are growing. Do you see this as a tendency in the future?
It seems like it is. I mean I think what’s kind of interesting is that you get people into a concert hall with an orchestra; people that normally wouldn’t go. A lot of people don’t want to go to a concert with an orchestra because it’s classical music, but when it comes to film music it’s different. For example what Ramin is doing with Game of Thrones in concert… that’s a whole spectacle! I would maybe like to do something like that down the road… maybe something with Hunger Games or Maleficent. I always thought Maleficent would be great with a big stage and costumes…
It’s the kind of Disney Christmas story that could work, and If Frozen is going on tour… why not Maleficent?
Is there going to be CD / DVD release of this tour?
No. You have to enjoy it live. And tonight is your last night! Here! (*laughs*)
We will! And finally tell me, what are your plans for 2018? Is there a new tour in sight?
I would really love to do another tour, absolutely! It’s possible we could do a few concerts next year but my schedule is very busy with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and then Fantastic Beasts 2 that are going to keep me busy up to the middle of September, so I’ll just focus on those first!
So that’s it! Thank you very much for your time, and I’m eager to enjoy your concert tonight!
I’m sure you will!
Article & Interview by Gorka Oteiza