James Newton Howard in Bilbao

On Wednesday, December 7th, and in a middle of two national holidays in Spain, James Newton Howard was in Bilbao conducting a monographic concert of his music with the Bilbao Symphony Orchestra – Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa (BOS) and The Chorus Society of Bilbao.


Fernando Velázquez shared stage with him, and in the first part of the concert conducted a piece for violin and orchestra, composed by James Newton Howard.


While in November 2017, the prestigious American composer will begin a concert tour that will take him through 20 European cities conducting monographic concerts with his music (more information here), the December 7th concert is the only one that James Newton Howard has given in 2016, choosing for that event the city of Bilbao.


In this article, we will relate the visit of the American composer to Bilbao, which began a few days earlier, on Friday, December 2nd, precisely.




JNH Bilbao 2016 - Poster

With Goldberg Management as organizer of the Bilbao Puerto de Arte cycle of concerts, and Aideac Communication as managers for press and communication services, on Friday December 2nd in the morning, a press conference was held with the accredited media, where James Newton Howard explained details about his career, his latest works, the tour that he will begin in 2017, the concert of December 7th, as well as his inspirations when it comes to composing.


This information has been obtained from local press and television, because despite having SoundTrackFest requested press accreditation a month earlier to the events that were to happen during the visit of James Newton Howard to Bilbao, and having reiterated the request later, at the time of the press conference, no reply had been received.


Thus, knowing the existence of the press conference by Facebook on the same day and 2 hours before its celebration, it was not possible to go and ask questions to James Newton Howard, just as SoundTrackFest could do with Howard Shore in Fimucité in Tenerife (follow link) or Ryuichi Sakamoto at the World Soundtrack Awards in Ghent this year (follow link). A bad management of the press and communication office of Bilbao Puerto de Arte, which as we will see later in this article, was not an isolated incident.


Same Friday but in the afternoon, a free attendance conference was held (previous registration), which was advertised a week in advance on the Facebook page of Bilbao Puerto de Arte, so at 19:30 that Friday, we were able to go to Deusto University, which within its cycle of meetings called Deusto Forum, hosted the event.


At the entrance to the conference hall, personal translation equipment was delivered to everyone who requested (previous ID deposit), in order to follow the session in Spanish, as it took place entirely in English.


The conference, which lasted almost an hour and a half, had Fernando Velázquez as moderator, asking varied questions to James Newton Howard, conducting a dialogue and a debate between both in which they dealt with many topics such as: his sources of inspiration, the current state of cinema music and the use of mockups in it, his approach to musical themes and melodies in some of the works he had done, or the way he has to compose, among others.

Conference at Deusto University - JNH and Fernando Velázaquez


James Newton Howard commented that he considers himself a melodic composer and that he usually looks for a melody that is representative of the subject he wants to express, and that can be molded and modified to be used in comic, dramatic or action situations; either by changing the rhythm, the tone, or the color of the piece, depending where it will be used in the film.


Also, throughout the conference he talked about his relationship with Hans Zimmer, to whom he professes admiration for being innovative in his projects on a continuous basis, and spoke of the current state of film music, where it seems to be is a tendency not to use melodies but to work with sound designs and textures, giving place to a music too homogeneous and similar, with little margin for the creativity.


Regarding the mockups, James Newton Howard emphasized that it is important to use them, since in this way it is easier for him to communicate to the director / producer what he wishes to transmit with the music, so they can see approximate results before the recording sessions, allowing to make new versions and changes as the creative dialogue between the two parts advances.

Conference at Deusto University - James Newton Howard


As a demonstration of this aspect, and using as an example his latest film Fantastic Animals and where to find them (2016), the composer showed the audience the process of creating the theme of the beginning of the film, where he fused the first 12 seconds of the iconic theme of Hedwig by John Williams (something that he commented was a great responsibility for the implications and the roots that the theme had after 7 Harry Potter films) with 20 seconds of his new theme for the intrepid adventure that begins with this film.


In this way, and through demos and mockups that totaled up to 41 versions, at least 4 or 5 videos were played in the auditorium, showing different moments of the creative process, ranging from initial dramatic, or comic, or romantic, or ethereal and not very melodic versions, to the final version that reflected correctly the message that the composer wanted to transmit: the vigorous beginning of a new adventure.


These additional versions that did not pass the final cut, were not however all discarded, since some ended up becoming themes for characters or situations in the film. A spectacular presentation from James Newton Howard of the creation process of a theme, which received a great applause from all the audience.


The conference ended with a round of Q&A, using the paper cards that had been placed at the beginning in the seats, and in which the participants could write their questions and give them to Fernando Velázquez, who choose and asked them to James Newton Howard.


During the conference there was a piano in the room, which was used by the composer to illustrate examples of the themes of his last film on several occasions, as well as other works that were mentioned and about which he wanted to expand information.


A very didactic and highly recommendable conference, which also gave the possibility to enjoy a few moments with James Newton Howard at the end of it, resulting in some photos, and some CDs and scores signing, moments highly valued by the public. Very good organization and very good disposition of the event.



And we are already on the main event of James Newton Howard’s visit to Bilbao: the monographic concert of Wednesday December 7th. But before beginning to talk about the concert, there’s something else to tell.


As it has been previously mentioned, a press request was made from SoundTrackFest to access the concert rehearsals and to conduct an interview with James Newton Howard, one month before the date of the concert. Despite asking again about the request when the date of the event approached, it was not until 2 days before the concert when a response was received from Aideac Comunicación, in charge of managing the communication and press section of Bilbao Puerto de Arte, denying both requests for agenda reasons.


Commenting on this matter with other media colleagues, responsible for news coverage of film music world and who intended to cover the event, we know that at least in two other cases, with two other different media, something similar happened and press requests were and ignored.


Without wishing to enter into more detail in this regard, we understand that Bilbao Puerto de Arte should not allow a press and communication office not to respond to the requests received, either to accept or to decline them, since with at least 3 requests unanswered, the issue seems to be more than a mistake (rather a pattern).


But returning with the concert, indicate that this was held in the Euskalduna Palace in Bilbao, and was encompassed within the cycle of symphonic concerts Bilbao Puerto de Arte of classical music for 2016-2017, associated with the section called Cinema Stars Series, in order to contemplate the growing interest of cinema music in the concert halls.


As already mentioned in other previous articles of concerts held in Bilbao that SoundTrackFest has attended, the Euskalduna Palace is a perfectly prepared space for a concert of these dimensions and characteristics, both at a technical level and at a logistical level, with more than 2,160 seats available in its main auditorium.

Palacio Euskalduna - Euskalduna Palace


After 7:30 pm, the audience was gradually entering the venue, but despite the expectation raised by the concert and the discounts on tickets up to 30% offered weeks before, the place was not full.


Full attendance could be seen in the upper floors of the auditorium, in the lower priced seats, but there were many free seats in the main patio as well as a pair of completely empty patio terraces. Surely, quite a few of the people who had purchased a season ticket for Bilbao Puerto de Arte were responsible for those empty seats, who did not find the type of concert and the dates attractive enough to attend the event. Anyway, it is clear that once again the price is a determining factor when filling a hall, and is something that should be taken into account for future editions.

JNH Bilbao 2016 - Concert - 1 - Stage


The concert began on time at 8:00 pm sharp, with Fernando Velázquez in charge of the Bilbao Orkestra Sinfonikoa (BOS), appearing on the scene the prestigious Canadian violinist James Ehnes with a great applause from the public, who had his violin 1715 “Marsick” Stradivarius, which by way is valued in more than 8 million dollars.


For half an hour, we could listen to the only piece that was not related to film music of the whole evening, the Concert for Violin and Orchestra divided in three movements (Allegro Moderato / Andante Semplice / Presto with Moto), although it is true that certain passages of the piece, could show the skills of the composer and the resources used in his film soundtracks.


During the piece, the virtuoso James Ehnes shone with own merit, playing by memory the work that James Newton Howard had composed, where you could see the feeling that the violinist impregnated throughout the various passages that he was covering, with his mind and with his fingers.

JNH Bilbao 2016 - Concert - 2 - James Ehnes


A very good work, with an impressive performance, which unfortunately did not fill film music fans, although perhaps did fill the people who bought season tickets of Bilbao Puerto de Arte, probably being that audience their objective, in a mixture of both worlds.


After finishing this first piece and followed by a short pause, the orchestra received the reinforcement of some musicians in the woodwind and brass sections. Also, this reinforcement in the instruments was completed with the appearance on stage of the Choral Society of Bilbao, which began to climb the stands after the orchestra, and that was received with great applause from the public.


And so came the moment where James Newton Howard appeared on the scene with a great ovation of the audience, and took over Fernando Velázquez to conduct a suite of the film Snow White and the Huntsman – Two Fairy Tales, that had strength and energy, with the choir supporting the great performance of the orchestra.

JNH Bilbao 2016 - Concert - 3 - JNH


At a technical level, it is necessary to emphasize that the natural sound of the musicians in the room was prioritized wisely, over the typical amplification that is often used and that is usually enemy of this type of events. Also it was decided not to project images or synchronized videos along with the music, that although in some cases give a positive reinforcement to the music, if done incorrectly, they get the opposite effect.


After a pause and a new applause from the audience, James Newton Howard read a brief message of gratitude in Spanish, mentioning the organization, the orchestra, the choir and Fernando Velázquez, and finished with a correct and surprising “Eskerrikasko” (“Thanks” in Basque), to go on with the next piece Grand Canyon – Fanfare, which although was agile and strong, had a short duration and was simply correct.


And so we arrived to the intermission, at 8:50 pm, just as we were starting to warm up our musical engines, wanting more, and with the feeling that the violin concert would be our “enemy”, reducing the final duration of the night dedicated to film music.


The second part of the concert began at 9:05 pm with violinist Artur Kaganovskiy on stage, who played the complex and elaborate pieces of The Village – The Gravel Road and Defiance – Nothing is impossible. In this case, the virtuoso violinist did have scores, and although it must be said that both performances were really good, Defiance – Nothing is impossible stood out especially for its sensitivity and depth.

JNH Bilbao 2016 - Concert - 4 - Artur Kaganovskiy


Next Maleficent – Suite was played, which had a reinforcement of children in the choir to give the childlike tone that the piece required. Although the suite was correct, it did not get to captivate by its very calm start, the delay in reaching the climax, and the pauses made between the different sections of the suite, which gave a feeling of disconnection. Having the reference to the magnificent suite of Maleficent enjoyed in 2015 in Hollywood in Vienna, the present one could only be described as correct.


And perhaps it was at this moment when it was possible to realize of one of the weakest points that could be attributed to the current concert; comparisons with James Newton Howard‘s wonderful concert in Hollywood in Vienna last year (follow link), made this concert quite unfortunate at times.


It is true that the program was chosen by James Newton Howard himself, who already commented in the conference and in another occasion that the pieces that he would choose for a concert, probably would not be the ones that the public would choose, since he would select pieces that have a special meaning for him. But it is also true that the musical advice and the context that was transmitted to him about this concert, clearly influenced the selection made by the composer, and caused many pieces that the film fans demanded to be left out.


Continuing with the concert, the next pause between pieces led to Fernando Velázquez appearing on stage again, although this time he did to be interpreter of James Newton Howard.


Thus, they gave way to Snow Falling on Cedars – Tarawa, which began with a very soft cello with complicity, to be later accompanied by the rest of the strings section and the chorus in subtle way, to gather force and feeling as the piece progressed, ending with a percussion that sentenced the final in an abrupt ending. Very good interpretation, which left a great feeling in the audience.

JNH Bilbao 2016 - Concert - 5 - JNH


Following, a change was announced in the original program; next theme was The Hunger Games – Suite, where Fernando Velázquez played the guitar integrated in the orchestra, while he was accompanied by the harp and the chorus as the piece developed. A suite that, like the one from Maleficent, was somewhat irregular, with several pauses between blocks, which slightly cut the pace and fluidity, and that didn’t hit the target.


And to end the official program, and after a new appreciation speech from James Newton Howard to the organization and to Bilbao, and a joke about that he had not stopped eating wonderfully throughout his stay in the area getting even some weight, the orchestra began to play the piece The Last Airbender – Flow Like Water, that according to the composer, and in spite of not having the film good acceptance, was a piece from which he kept very good memories.


A wonderful interpretation, which was in-crescendo, as did the intensity and the wandering of music in the piece, and that got a great applause at the end.


Although we were theoretically at the end of the concert and it was almost 10 pm, the public was not willing to leave the hall without some encores, especially when there were so many classic themes still left to be played.


Thus, and after an intense applause, came the first and only encore of the evening, which became brief and short. It was The Hunger Games – The Hanging Tree, with a young female soloist singer in the upper right corner of the stage, under the organ, that interpreted the piece in a firm and energetic way, while the orchestra wrapped her voice with a slow but sustained musical development, which ended up adding the rest of the chorus in an explosion of sound and sensibility.

JNH Bilbao 2016 - Concert - 6 - The Hanging Tree


A wonderful ending to a concert that was not very satisfactory, because despite the public’s insistence with more than 5 minutes of applauses, there was no second encore or the opportunity to enjoy many classic themes that were left out that evening.

JNH Bilbao 2016 - Concert - 7 - Ending



Everything seemed to indicate that James Newton Howard’s concert in Bilbao was going to be the concert of the year in Spain, in relation to film music concerts, but after what has been commented throughout this article, it is clear that it wasn’t.


A program that was not chosen with fans of film music in mind, a short duration of the concert (since the first half an hour was for the “concert for violin and orchestra”, and there was just one encore at the end, leaving many iconic movies themes aside), and a higher than desired ticket prices, made many people that wanted to listen to film music come out with a bittersweet feeling from the concert; a feeling of having paid a high price, for a musical menu that did not quench their appetite.


We hope that the improvement points that have been highlighted throughout this article, in a constructive and positive way, are taken into account in the following Cinema Star Series concerts of future editions of Bilbao Puerto de Arte, which from SoundTrackFest we hope will be held again in 2017 with new surprises and with the same technical quality.


Meanwhile, if we want to talk about the concert of the year, as far as film music is concerned, we will have to look elsewhere, since in 2016 we’ve been fortunate enough to have Danny Elfman, Howard Shore and Michel Legrand in Spain, in addition to James Newton Howard, having yet to wait at the end of this month before issuing a verdict; till the concert in Barcelona of Alexandre Desplat, that is eagerly expected.