Known for his scores to such films as “The Hunger Games” and “Pretty Woman,” the prolific film composer has written a new work for the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s ongoing 2018 Summer Festival.
It would be hard to underestimate how pervasively film composers shape the general public’s image of what classical music “sounds like.” Countless fans who’ve never experienced a classical concert can identify a suite’s worth of “Star Wars” motifs with a connoisseur’s passion. Even examples from the most avant-garde side of classical have found an enduring home on soundtracks, despite being excluded from the standard concert repertoire. (Quite a few thrillers and horror films would be a lot less effective without them.)
The exchange between Hollywood and the concert hall is a guiding thread for the programs in the third week of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s monthlong Summer Festival — which kicks off, fittingly enough, with a world premiere by one of the most successful and prolific film composers at work today: James Newton Howard. His chamber work “They have just arrived at this new level” will be unveiled on Monday, July 16.
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“I started getting this project going a couple of years ago, so I’m really looking forward to performing it,” says James Ehnes, the internationally acclaimed violinist who has served as artistic director of SCMS since 2011. Ehnes premiered a violin concerto written for him by Howard in 2015 and has since become a champion of his music. When Howard finally delivered his score for this summer’s festival, the violinist was delighted to have it as the latest addition — underwritten by the SCMS Commissioning Club — to the usual fare of chamber-music classics mixed with little-known gems and rediscovered works.
“Like his Violin Concerto, this piece is another example of the quality of James’ work. With film music, usually it’s about writing a cue and then recutting,” remarks Ehnes. “Often composers who write for film don’t have to think about the pacing and proportions that characterize concert music. But James has a grasp of these elements that really stands out.” He finds that Howard’s new work, which is cast in a single movement, “is quite impressive in how the narrative and the proportion of it feel so right and fit together.”
Film lovers with widely varying tastes are likely to have encountered Howard’s music at some point, thanks to the composer’s sheer versatility. Now 67, the native Angeleno is responsible for the scores accompanying more than 120 films (eight of them nominated for Academy Awards). These range from the music for “The Hunger Games” series to “Defiance,” “Pretty Woman,” the blockbuster remake of “King Kong” and the Grammy Award-winning “The Dark Knight” (co-written with fellow veteran Hans Zimmer). Outside the film studio, Howard has worked with figures from popular music like Elton John, Rod Stewart and Chaka Khan.
Speaking during a break from Abbey Road Studios in London — one of his forthcoming projects is the fantasy film “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms” — Howard explains that his new piece represents a case of coming upon the right title after he had already composed the music. “Years ago, I was going through a difficult personal time, and a friend of mine who is an avid art collector lent me some paintings to put on my otherwise barren walls.” One of these, “Balloon Heads” (2001), by the San Francisco-based painter and street artist Chris Johanson, includes the phrase “They have just arrived at this new level” on the side of the canvas.
After an exhausting tour abroad, Howard finally settled down to working on the commission at the beginning of this year — which made the “simmering insanity” of the mood back home stand out all the more.
“One day I was watching some pundits screaming at each other on a news show. It suddenly reminded me of this painting on my wall, of balloons with goofy faces rising — pundits screaming at each other and arguing off into the ether.” He realized both the painting and the angry pundits seemed to echo “the competing voices” in his new work, which is scored for string quartet, flute and clarinet (Ehnes will play first violin).
“James knows exactly what he wants,” says Ehnes. “There’s a very clear architecture to it that makes the piece stand up. I think it’s entertaining and disturbing at the same time. It manages to get under your skin and makes you feel vaguely uncomfortable.”
Prefacing “They have just arrived” is a piece for violin and piano that Howard originally wrote for Hillary Hahn’s “Encores” project in 2012 and a very early work Howard composed for piano alone in 1969, shortly after he dropped out of USC as a piano performance major: “a snapshot of my musical interests at that age.”
While composers like Howard are exploring new identities in the classical sphere, another figure Ehnes has programmed for the festival moved in the reverse direction.
The Austrian composer Erich Korngold (1897-1957), one of music history’s most extraordinary prodigies (Mahler called him a genius on seeing a piece he composed at age 9), made the transition from the classical to the film world — indeed, linked the two together — and, in the process, helped establish the model for the sound of Hollywood’s “golden age.”
A refugee after the Nazi annexation of Austria, Korngold had enjoyed a hugely successful career in Europe, in particular as an opera composer, before being invited to Hollywood to compose for the movies. He was busy scoring “The Adventures of Robin Hood” when Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna.
“Korngold was initially hired to write music for Hollywood, and what he wrote worked. And so it became the definition of the genre,” Ehnes says. “But it’s important to remember that he was not trying to fit into a box, because the box had not yet been established.”
Ehnes has programmed two chamber works from Korngold’s earlier European career: the Quintet for Piano and Strings from 1921-22 (Wednesday, July 18) and the Suite for 2 Violins, Cello, and Piano (Left Hand) from 1930 (Friday, July 20). Although these pieces predate his California period, Ehnes says, they express “an aesthetic that makes it into his later Hollywood scores.”
James Newton Howard’s “They have just arrived at this new level” receives its world premiere, alongside works by Rachmaninoff and Brahms, as part of the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s 2018 Summer Festival. 8 p.m. Monday, July 16; Ilsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $52 ($16 students and 30 and under; $30 rush tickets); 206-283-8808, seattlechambermusic.org.