Horner’s ‘Pas de Deux’ gets U.S. premiere with LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl
Brooding, elegiac, melancholic, warm and uplifting have been adjectives used to describe the late James Horner’s music. Whether he was writing for film or the concert hall, Horner’s scores always managed to move people.
He was an unashamedly accessible composer who drew on his knowledge of Russian, British and French music to produce one of the most impressive bodies of work since his older contemporary John Williams, a composer similarly gifted with a powerful ability to conjure atmosphere and create emotional connections through music.
Horner’s credits include some of the most evocative scores ever composed: “Field of Dreams,” “Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart,” “Apollo 13,” “A Beautiful Mind,” “Star Trek II,” “Aliens,” “Avatar” — the list goes on. In 1998, Horner’s Oscar-winning “Titanic” score and song, “My Heart Will Go On,” became the best-selling soundtrack of all time.
The prolific composer died at age 61 when the small plane he was solo piloting in June 2015 crashed in northern Ventura County. But Horner left several projects behind, including “Pas de Deux,” a double concerto for violin and cello, which will be given its United States premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, led by Bramwell Tovey, on Aug. 25 at the Hollywood Bowl.
The Bowl program, called “Cinematic Sounds,” also includes music by Bernard Herr-mann from “Vertigo,” Leonard Bernstein’s symphonic suite for “On the Waterfront” and George Gershwin’s “Shall We Dance: Finale and Coda.”
“Sadly, with James’ untimely death, the entire program is about the legacy of these masters and the extraordinary way each composer straddled the so-called movie music/concert music divide,” Tovey said in an email. “They were all great composers, period.”
Born in Los Angeles, Horner was classically trained at the Royal College of Music in London, USC and UCLA. His father, Harry, an Austro-Hungarian-born American art director who won Oscars for “The Heiress” (1949) and “The Hustler” (1961), came to the United States with stage director Max Reinhardt for a Broadway show, “The Eternal Road,” a musical about the history of the Jewish people. When the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938, Harry, who was Jewish, couldn’t go home. He eventually married James’ mother, Joan, who came from a prominent Canadian Jewish family, and they settled in Los Angeles.
Horner’s “Pas de Deux” is one of his last concert pieces. His final concert work, “Collage,” is due for a fall release from Mercury Classics.
The Bowl concert also represents the LA Philharmonic debuts of the Norwegian brother/sister duo Mari Samuelsen (violin) and Hakon Samuelsen (cello). The pair, who have been generating a reputation as exponents of new music, made their CD debut for Mercury Classics last year. The disc, called “Pas de Deux,” features the title score, which the Samuelsens commissioned from Horner, along with works by Arvo Pärt, Giovanni Sollima and Ludovico Einaudi.
Reached by phone in Norway, the Samuelsens, who knew Horner during the last five years of his life, were both on the line, happy but understandably sad, speaking about a man who had become a dear friend.
“We saw him a lot,” Hakon Samuelsen said, “but he was a very private person, extremely dedicated to his music. He got up every morning at 4 a.m. He would email or text us at 4, 5 or 6 in the morning.”
Mari said “Pas de Deux” allowed Horner to do what he wanted. “There are not that many double concertos in the repertory,” she said, “and with ‘Pas de Deux,’ James could be completely free. It was not for a movie. The score is all him.”
Hakon recalled Horner liking the idea of writing a concerto for two soloists, but also being “a bit scared.” But Mari said Horner liked venturing outside of his comfort zone.
“He was interested in going further into concert music,” she said. “He saw composing as painting a picture — colors and patterns finding a form in chords, in musical language.”
Mari said Horner didn’t want to write a virtuosic “showoff piece” for the duo. “He wanted to create this poetic atmosphere, this world of beauty.”
The Samuelsens, who performed the premiere of “Pas de Deux” in 2014 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, conducted by Vasily Petrenko, said the score has grown with them.
“It’s not a piece you hear once and are done with it,” Mari said. “James had a clear vision of the shape he wanted, like an emotional wave. He was a genius of timing, of what should come where. It feels organic.”
Horner’s mentor was composer Paul Chihara, who started the film music program at UCLA with Jerry Goldsmith (“Chinatown”).
“Jamie always wanted to become a classical composer,” Chihara said. “But he couldn’t drop all those wonderful assignments and take six months to write a concert piece. He was my student, but I didn’t teach him. I showed him things.”
As composer-in-residence at the San Francisco Ballet, Chihara recalled taking Horner to see a production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“He loved Prokofiev’s death of Juliet music,” he said. “Jamie made use of everything he learned. He was a chameleon who picked things up fast. Shakespeare did that too, and Bach recycled earlier works for whole sections of his Mass in B minor. Jamie’s music either came from him or from his memory bank.”
Composer Mohammed Fairouz, a colleague of Horner’s, said Horner felt pigeon-holed by the success of “Titanic.” But Fairouz added that his friend’s sensitivity about the score was misplaced, citing the Southampton sequence in the film, where the ship leaves port for open water, as an extraordinary achievement in composing.
“Anyone who looks down on film music should look at that scene and try to do something half as good,” Fairouz said. “It’s one of the reasons I regard him so highly. The story is ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on a ship, about different historical classes juxtaposed on a historical narrative. But without his score, you would not care about the characters. That’s a big accomplishment.”
Chihara agreed. “Nobody says, ‘You’re just a film composer anymore,’ ” he said. “Like Fairouz, [composers] Steve Reich and Philip Glass also don’t take a haughty attitude to film music.”
For the rhapsodic and nearly half-hour long “Pas de Deux,” Horner shows how much he absorbed the music of British composers like Ralph Vaughan Williams.
“Jamie’s harmonies are always rich,” Chihara said. “His music is always attractive, colorful and warm, with those major keys and full triads moving in parallel with the harmony. His spirit and lyrical gifts still haunt me.”