David Newman brings ‘Star Trek’ to the Bowl
Not many people can claim the kind of Trekkie credibility that composer-conductor David Newman can. As a studio violinist, Newman played on the soundtrack of the half-century-old franchise’s first movie, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” based on the popular 1960s TV series.
On July 8 and 9, Newman will conduct “Star Trek in Concert” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, which will feature Michael Giacchino’s score to 2009’s “Star Trek.” The first of the film series reboots — a fourth is to be announced — “Star Trek” will be performed live-to-picture, shown on the venue’s big HD screen.
“There’s a thing about film composing and conducting in my family,” Newman said recently in his Malibu recording studio.
Considering that his father, Alfred, ran the 20th Century Fox music department almost single-handedly for 20 years, the comment was quite an understatement. “John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith came out of Fox,” Newman said. “My dad hired Bernard Herrmann and David Raksin when no one else would.”
A nine-time Oscar-winning composer — and the third-most Oscar-nominated person after Walt Disney and John Williams — Alfred’s film scores include “Gunga Din,” “Wuthering Heights,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “All About Eve.” He also wrote the 20th Century Fox fanfare.
Newman’s uncle Lionel was a longtime conductor, pianist and composer at Fox. Another uncle, Emil, was a music director and conductor.
That’s not all. His brother Thomas is a film composer whose credits include “The Shawshank Redemption” and last year’s “Bridge of Spies.” Older cousin Randy is a singer-songwriter who became an Oscar-winning film composer.
Before his own composing career took off, Newman played on the soundtrack to John Williams’ score for Steven Spielberg’s 1982 hit, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.” Since then, Newman’s worked on 100-plus film scores, including “Bowfinger” and “Galaxy Quest,” the animated film “Anastasia” (his father scored the 1956 live-action version starring Ingrid Bergman), for which he earned an Oscar nomination in 1997, and the upcoming “Army of One.”
At age 7, Newman began violin lessons, taking up piano three years later. With his brother Thomas, also a violinist, he played in orchestras. “We had a normal childhood,” Newman said. “I played baseball, and we played violin in orchestras three times a week. I learned more from that than anything else.”
Father Alfred’s side of the family was Russian-Jewish. As an administrator of Fox studios, he “was responsible for everything” at work, so the job of maintaining discipline at home fell mostly to his mother, Martha. “There was no quitting,” he said about her child-rearing philosophy.
Martha was a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian who was 20 years younger than Alfred.
“They were an unlikely pair,” Newman said. “But they made a deal. We went to a very liberal Episcopalian church. It didn’t take for me. Alfred liked the [rector], because he was a liberal, East Coast guy who was against the Vietnam War. But my dad would call me ‘Dovidel,’ and with my uncles, would swear in Yiddish.”
Newman said he was “totally uninterested” in film music until his late 20s. “I was very much a snob,” he said.
His attitude changed after years of doing studio work as a violinist. The music was indeed first-rate, whether images were projected while it was playing or not. It took musicians such as Newman and Williams to slowly help counter the pejorative connotations of the term “film music.”
“Film music has a great history of composers and performers,” Newman said, “especially the expatriates who came here from Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1920s and ’30s — Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Dimitri Tiomkin. You hear about [Igor] Stravinsky and [Arnold] Schoenberg coming, but a lot of rank-and-file musicians also came over. It’s kind of an untold story.”
For Newman, the best film scores provide new generations with a powerful introduction to concert hall music. “Billions of people have heard symphonic music,” Newman said, “because who doesn’t go to the movies? So they’ve heard symphonic music in some form. Movie nights at the Bowl take away the intimidation factor. The difficulty of classical music is that it takes some familiarity and time to unlock it. More often than not, after going to one of these movie nights, people will give [more traditional] concerts a chance.”
Newman said performing a score live-to-picture at the Bowl is like a scoring session, in which the conductor is responsible for making sure the music matches the scene being projected, only now there’s a huge audience.
“When you listen to a Beethoven symphony, it’s telling a story. It has a beginning, middle and end. … But when you tie a score to a movie, it pushes the concept that abstract classical music can also be visceral and emotional. That’s the way our brains work.”
Plenty of dramatic storytelling will also be offered in the upcoming Bowl concert “John Williams: Maestro of the Movies,” from Sept. 2-4. In the first half of the program, Newman will conduct the L.A. Philharmonic in film score classics, which will be accompanied by selected film clips. Williams will conduct the second half of the program, including music from his latest score, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and other favorites.
Newman noted that Williams’ conducting career is just as important as his composing career. “I’m sure he got tremendous pushback from musicians about doing film music, but he persevered, and he’s still going,” Newman said.
With Newman’s connections to the feature-film aspect of the “Star Trek” franchise, one major question remained regarding his emotional tie to the original TV series that ran from 1966-1969. Is Newman really a devoted Trekkie?
“Of course,” Newman said, citing the “The Empath” from Season 3, and the first season’s two-part origin story, “The Menagerie,” as favorite episodes. “We were lucky enough to have a color TV, and it was the only show my mom let us watch.”