Tony Black reviews The Best of Elmer Bernstein at the Royal Albert Hall…
Over the last few years, the Royal Albert Hall has become the go-to venue for a remarkable array of film music concerts, be they live orchestra alongside viewings of a movie (such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I was lucky enough to catch last year), blending orchestral pieces with film related music concerts for franchises such as James Bond, or in this case a bevy of classic film score suites composed by the late, great Elmer Bernstein.
One of the signature film music composers of the 20th century, arguably able to stand on a podium with the John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith’s and James Horner’s of this world, Bernstein scored some of the most legendary pictures in Hollywood history, from The Ten Commandments through to Ghostbusters and beyond. Royal Albert Hall, in presenting a tribute to his life and music, deliver a sumptuous concert encompassing some of his finest pieces of work.
For film and film music fans, there’s an extra treat in store on two fronts. Firstly, that Bernstein’s son Peter, an accomplished composer and musician in his own right, was on hand to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra in their renditions of his father’s work, lending the concert an intimate touch as Bernstein regaled the audience with light anecdotes about Elmer’s life and working process with a natural fondness and pride, capped off with a self-effacing sense of humour.
Banter indeed was order of the day via the other treat, the Albert Hall having drafted in film director John Landis, a legend in his own right behind pictures such as The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and more, to introduce the concert. Lightly sparring with old friend Peter, Landis lends stories about his own professional and personal relationship with Elmer in the multiple films they collaborated on, from the renowned Animal House in 1978 onwards. These personal touches add much to the programme.
What about the music itself? A curated set of Bernstein’s work was deftly delivered by the RPCO, who as Landis commented at one point had a remarkably small window of rehearsal time (you wouldn’t know it), they kick off in style with Bernstein’s first powerhouse, 1956’s The Ten Commandments from Cecil B. DeMille, the hall roaring with the Biblical grandeur of Bernstein’s strings.
Several TV pieces surprise in how layered and accomplished they are, such as 1963-1964’s Hollywood and the Stars, which reaches high to touch the glamour and glitz of Tinseltown, but the first breakout moment is a remarkably sassy and stylish rendition of 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm, a jazzy change of pace for Bernstein which landed him with the first of several pigeonholes throughout his career, a consequence of doing one thing just a bit too well! Fabulously played, it’s a highlight that almost steals the limelight from To Kill a Mockingbird & The Magnificent Seven, two of Bernstein’s most well known and beloved scores, on offer here.
Upon finishing the first half with this bravura segment of pieces where Bernstein shows his uniquely eclectic range, Landis really comes alive as presenter even more in the second, presenting a beautifully romantic rendition of the score to Martin Scorsese’s 1993 period piece The Age of Innocence, as well as two superbly delivered pieces from his own films – a terrific self-parody by Bernstein of his own, unbeatable Western themes for the 1986’s comedy Three Amigos!, and a specially orchestrated suite from 1981’s An American Werewolf in London—possibly Landis’ most celebrated picture—which combined a mixture of the undulating, creeping horror of Bernstein’s music with newly arranged pieces that didn’t make the movie. Landis’ visible enjoyment of the music to work he remains clearly proud of, nodding along from the wings as the RPCO make the music soar, was quite infectious and a pleasure to see.
Climaxing with a suite from 1963’s seminal The Great Escape, and a rousing Sweet Smell of Success for an encore, The Best of Elmer Bernstein was as much of a triumph as the featured composer’s own catalogue of music. Beautifully conducted and composed, with a delightful personal touch, and a curated selection of varied and fabulous scores, it was a timeless experience which, should it come around again, would be a joy for any film music fan to see. Continued props to the Royal Albert Hall for bringing this wonderful music alive in such a grand, welcoming venue. A real joy.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★