The scores were great and the songs were problematic as the Academy held its first concert devoted to nominated music
With suites from the Oscar-nominated musical scores, a performance of Jerry Goldsmith's “Fanfare for Oscar” and a song backed by dancers choreographed by Debbie Allen, it sometimes felt as if a Gil Cates-produced Academy Awards show from the 1990s was taking place at UCLA's Royce Hall on Thursday night. But rather than being a blast from the past, the evening was a forward-looking, first-ever Oscar Concert – an event, said AMPAS Music Branch governor Charles Fox at the end of the night, that would be “the first of hopefully many.”
A two-hour-plus tribute to the five scores and four songs nominated for this year's Oscars, the concert was approved by the Board of Governors last year, but largely set in motion on Jan. 16, after the nominations were announced. And while the night had its rough spots, the sight (and sound) of a large orchestra playing expertly-assembled suites from “Gravity,” “Her,” “The Book Thief,” “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Philomena” was impressive and frequently exhilarating.
Those suites, all about 10 minutes in length and arranged by their composers, were the clear highlights of the night. Alexandre Desplat's “Philomena” music had grace and delicacy, while Thomas Newman's “Saving Mr. Banks” was both pastoral and playful. William Butler's and Owen Pallett's warm, gentle and evocative “Her” was a revelation of sorts in its rearrangement for orchestra, while John Williams’ suite from “The Book Thief” was as rich and varied as you'd expect from the iconic 49-time nominee.
And Steven Price's bold and emotional “Gravity” suite was an absolute showstopper, drawing the biggest cheers of the night and prompting its composer to tell moderator Elvis Mitchell that it was the first time he'd ever heard his score performed by a full orchestra.
Mitchell's brief interviews, which preceded each suite, were trickier. Composing music can be a non-verbal pursuit, and it's not easy, particularly in 5-10 minute chats, to get composers to talk in any substantial way about their work. So no matter how many times Mitchell tried to nudge Desplat to address his approach to writing music for strong female characters, or how often he pushed Williams to talk about capturing the emotion in “The Book Thief,” he couldn't get the composers to put their process into words.
On the other hand, Arcade Fire's Butler deftly detailed how the music for “Her” evolved from cold and futuristic to warmer and more emotional, while Price did a nice job of explaining the way he mixed organic and electronic sounds in “Gravity.”
If the nominated scores were the evening's highlight and the interviews more of a mixed blessing, the songs were problematic. The performances themselves were fine, for the most part: Composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez did a charming version of “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” “How I Met Your Mother” star Cristin Milioti ably handled “The Moon Song” from “Her” (she'd done a long run on Broadway in “Once,” so she knows the territory), and Jill Scott was suitably energetic on “Happy,” which featured a dozen young girls from the Debbie Allen Dance Academy and drew by far the biggest reaction of any of the nominated songs.
But of those three, only the Lopezes made real sense, because they wrote the song. In the other cases, the songs’ writers are also the ones who'll be performing on the Academy Awards, and the Oscar Concert used different (and slighter) performers apparently to avoid repetition.
And when host Common introduced “Ordinary Love” by talking about U2, and then introduced “our special guest, from ‘The Voice,’ Matt Cermanski” to perform that song, it was dispiriting to find that the Oscars had to turn to a singing competition to find somebody to take the place of one of the world's biggest rock bands.
Cermanski was adequate but eminently forgettable, and you'd like to think the Academy could do better. (I mean, Bono was in town and performed at a charity event on Wednesday night; would it have killed him to do an acoustic version of his song like his band did on Jimmy Fallon‘s first Tonight Show?)
But the Oscars Concert wasn't focused on the songs; it was far more about the scores, about composers like Desplat, Newman and Williams conducting their own work, about the orchestra and about stories from Disney songwriter Richard Sherman, who offered his thoughts on P.L. Travers, “Mary Poppins” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Moments like those are why the evening will be counted as a big success, and will almost certainly be repeated in coming years.
And when they give the Oscar Concert an encore next year, one suggestion: It wouldn't hurt to find space on the program to list the names of the players Charles Fox described as “some of the greatest studio musicians in the world,” the Academy Symphony Orchestra.
They're the ones who did most of the work on Thursday night, and they ought to get a little credit.