Even more than most of us, National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin grew up with the movies. His mother, Eleanor Aller, was the principal cellist of the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra, while his father, Felix Slatkin, was the concertmaster over at 20th Century Fox. You can hear the Slatkin parents playing on the soundtracks of hundreds of films.
"Do you remember the cello solo in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'?" Slatkin asked recently. "That was my mother."
The composer of that score was John Williams, who also wrote the music for "Jaws," "Schindler's List," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and the "Star Wars" series, among about 90 others. Now Slatkin and Williams have joined forces to present "Soundtracks: Music and Film," an ambitious festival that begins Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall and continues through Feb. 1.
There will be six concerts in all. The opening and closing nights are devoted to "A Portrait of John Williams," which will showcase not only Williams's film music but some of his concert pieces as well, including "Five Sacred Trees," a concerto for bassoon and orchestra played by NSO principal bassoonist Sue Heineman. With true team spirit, Williams will conduct "Portrait" on Thursday and Slatkin will lead the same program on Feb. 1.
On Friday afternoon a concert titled "Music and Film, Made in Hollywood, U.S.A." will include selections from Aaron Copland's score for "The Red Pony," Leonard Bernstein's for "On the Waterfront," Max Steiner's for "Gone With the Wind" and Bernard Herrmann's for "Vertigo," among others. Saturday night Slatkin, Williams and the venerable director Stanley Donen ("Singin' in the Rain") are to present an evening of music and conversation titled "In Synch: How Do They Do It?," which will explore the process of putting together a soundtrack.
On Jan. 30 a program called "Music and Film: The European Aesthetic" will include scores by, among others, Camille Saint-Saens (for a 1908 short, "L'Assassinat de Duc de Guise"), Dmitri Shostakovich and Sir William Walton. The following night, Slatkin will lead a complete performance of John Goberman's newly assembled score for the 1926 Fritz Lang classic "Metropolis," which includes music by Arnold Schoenberg, Edvard Grieg and Bela Bartok, among others. There will be post-concert discussions after most of the events, led by Slatkin, Williams, Donen and film historian Jon Burlingame.
Despite continuing references to "silent film" as an easy catchphrase for movies made before Warner Bros. introduced spoken dialogue in the late 1920s, early films were rarely silent. Rather, they told their stories to purely musical accompaniment, and sometimes to through-composed scores of considerable sophistication. (Washington's own Gillian Anderson, a faculty member at George Mason University, has written a book on silent-film music and has conducted a number of "live" performances with orchestra here and elsewhere.)
"As early as 1908, Saint-Saens, one of the most distinguished musicians of his time, was already writing for film," Slatkin said. "He was only the first in a long line of very important composers. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who wrote operas and symphonies in his youth, came to America and turned to film because he thought it was, in some ways, the 'new' opera -- that it offered similar opportunities to combine drama and music.
"The question always comes up -- do you need visuals when you are listening to film music? Let me ask you -- do you need visuals when you are listening to opera? My answer to both questions is no -- if the music is good, it can stand by itself."
Still, music literally sets the tone for many films. Joseph Losey's "King and Country" plays out to nothing more than the mournful strains of a solo harmonica. John Barry employed both European and Asian instruments for the film "King Rat," set in a Japanese prison camp. Ingmar Bergman uses music very sparingly -- a saraband from a Bach cello suite and a Chopin mazurka in "Cries and Whispers," for example -- but with devastating effect. And who can imagine "2001: A Space Odyssey" without the first 90 seconds of Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" to help usher in new worlds?
In general, film music is descriptive -- of a mood or milieu if not the action depicted onscreen. But there have been some remarkable exceptions to that rule. Mike Nichols's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" employs a sweetly serene, mock-Vivaldi guitar concerto by Alex North at the beginning and end of the film, gentle parentheses to the searing domestic battles that make up most of the action. Slatkin nominated Elmer Bernstein's soundtrack for "The Magnificent Seven" as another example of this cognitive dissonance. "The music is very broad and slow," he said. "It's exactly the opposite of what you'd expect.
"In 'Wait Until Dark,' Henry Mancini uses two pianos, one of them just slightly out of tune," he continued. "But for that really scary scene -- probably the most terrifying scene I've ever seen in any movie anywhere, when you think the villain is dead and he suddenly jumps out at Audrey Hepburn -- there's hardly any music whatsoever."
Slatkin believes that Williams operates on a "Wagnerian" scale: "He has brought back, almost single-handedly, the kind of big orchestra film score that you used to hear in the sort of movies my parents played for, back in what we now recognize was a golden age of film music."
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, Slatkin had the opportunity to meet many of the people who composed that music. "Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, Franz Waxman -- I met them all. L.A. was a very exciting place then -- we had everybody from Frank Sinatra to Arnold Schoenberg over to dinner."
The relationship between the Slatkins and Bernard Herrmann was never especially warm, however. The notoriously prickly Herrmann -- who wrote the score for one of the most enduring of all films set in Washington, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" -- arrived at Warner Bros. one day and was unhappy to find Eleanor Aller playing first cello. "He absolutely hated women," Slatkin said, "and he wanted her out of there immediately. And so my mother said that if Mr. Herrmann didn't want her to play, that was his privilege, and she went right to Jack Warner and offered up her resignation.
"Well, Warner said something like 'Oh no, if anybody is going to quit it will be Mr. Herrmann. Your place is in the orchestra.' And Herrmann had to apologize -- to the orchestra and to my mother."
Slatkin shrugged. "Oh well, he wrote beautiful music anyway."