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Charlotte Symphony scores, movie-wise

By Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman
Lawrence Toppman is a theater critic and culture writer with The Charlotte Observer.

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  • Review

    ‘Symphonic Cinema’

    Christopher Warren-Green conducts the final 2012-13 Pops concert, split between classic British and American film music.

    When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

    Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

    Tickets: $34.50-$62.50.

    Details: 704-372-1000,

Even a guy who’s been a film critic for 36 years can learn a lot about movie music, once you take away the movies.

Who knew that Danny Elfman’s menacing theme for “Batman” had a harp singing quietly behind blazing brass? Who noticed that scores for James Bond adventures were orchestrated to suit the locales: Tchaikovsky-like strings in “From Russia With Love,” flute and gong for the Japan-based “You Only Live Twice”? Who knew that a wistful Celtic section danced in and out amid the boisterous yo-ho-ho rollicking in “Pirates of the Caribbean”?

Christopher Warren-Green and members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra knew, because they’ve been preparing Symphonic Cinema concerts to end the Pops season. And a finger-snapping crowd at Knight Theater found out Friday during a program devoted half to British films and half to American product.

I did already know that the orchestra could swing, so its breezy opening Bond medley didn’t catch me off-guard. I knew it would do well with the schmaltzy, endearing themes Charlie Chaplin wrote for “Limelight.” (That score won him his only Oscar, a shared one. This is a crazy world.)

And I figured classically trained musicians might take and give pleasure in a program of music based solidly on the late-Romantic classical tradition, which still inspires film composers. (The opening to Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” used memorably in “2001,” fit right in here.)

In fact, the first score written specifically for a film came from a beloved “serious” musician: Camille Saint-Saëns, the late-Romantic French composer who scored “The Assassination of the Duke de Guise” in 1908. He set the film template for most of the next century: clearly defined melodies, brief orchestral interludes that underlined moods, motifs we can associate with characters.

The John Williams-John Barry-Maurice Jarre group, which has dominated film music for most of the past half-century, followed in his footsteps. They stood out among Friday’s composers: Williams for his fantasy themes for “E.T.” and “Harry Potter,” Barry for Bond, Jarre for selections from the greatest movie score ever composed. (Yes, that’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Another, lesser contender for that title gets played as an encore, but I won’t spoil the surprise.)

In another era, these giants might have been classified as “serious” composers.

But as the orchestra proved Friday, if musicians take film scores seriously, those can bring audiences to their feet as surely as a Tchaikovsky piano concerto or a Beethoven symphony.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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