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REEL LIFE: The Private Music of Film Composers, vol. I
Music Amici performing works by Michael Kamen, Rachel Portman, David Raksin, Bob James, Howard Shore, Bruce Broughton
Arabesque Recordings Z6741 (69:17)
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This album perhaps more appropriately should be reviewed on the classical music side of this Web site, but the six composers featured here are of particular interest to fans of film music. Though their efforts are not limited to composing for films, that is where Raksin, Kamen, Shore, Portman and Broughton are best known. (I would not say quite the same for James, whose work is the first heard on this recording, but the point is made.) As such, this is something of a “concept” album -- but what a concept! Many of us are familiar with the concert works of such film notables as Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa or Franz Waxman, but the vast repertoire of non-film works by otherwise well-known film composers remains largely unrecorded and thus unknown to their many admirers.

And this immediate note to those fans: The compositions featured on this disc are not large orchestral works such as film scores usually offer. Reel Life features eight compositions written for chamber orchestra, each enjoying its premiere recording by the eight-member Music Amici. While far from avant garde, none of the works offers the motific immediacy -- much less the dramatic bombast -- that make film music so readily enjoyable.

Nevertheless, there are gems herein, made all the more interesting because they display a side of these composers we might otherwise not see.

Still, like a film score, several of the pieces are at least slightly programmatic, such as Kamen’s ‘Cut Sleeves,’ which depicts an ancient Chinese legend of an emperor who slit his bed dress so as not to disturb his young lover when forced to leave their bed to attend to state matters. Kamen uses the oboe to introduce his theme, adroitly joining it with flute, cello and harp to weave this musical tale -- which, by the way, was Kamen’s first professional composition as a non-rock musician. At more than 11 minutes, it’s the longest single piece on Reel Life, apart from a five-movement work by Broughton. The piece is marked by a sharply lyric fluidity, particularly in its first half.

My favorite piece -- and perhaps the most immediately accessible on this disc -- is the first of two by Portman: her 6-minute ‘Rhapsody’ which she wrote for a friend’s wedding in 1994. Softly pastoral in its tone, ‘Rhapsody’ opens with piano voicing a sense of yearning which is then picked up by violin and clarinet in succession, each  building on the same sense of yearning which evolves, as the trio join, into one of fulfillment. (What a wonderful wedding gift -- and how sad that we had to wait this long to hear it!)

Portman’s second work, ‘For Julian,’ is a memorial in solo piano for her young friend, Julian Wastall, a composer whose work for film and TV may be better known to British readers of this Web site than to me. Portman’s contemplative piano effortlessly combines a feeling of both questioning and acceptance, leaving the listener with a sense of loss at its ending.

Raksin’s contribution to Reel Life, ‘A Song After Sundown’ (the title is a takeoff on a work by Delius) actually was used in a film -- the 1962 Too Late Blues, albeit as a vocal in a larger jazz arrangement. Heard here in chamber form by Music Amici, its bluesy nature remains unmistakable. By itself, this may be worth the price of the CD. Like Portman, Shore's represented by two pieces -- ‘Hughie’ and ‘Piano Four’ -- each is among the more abstract works on this recording. The former is a musical portrait of the title character of a Eugene O’Neil play, the latter described by the composer as “a brief statement for the end of the Millennium.”

Easily the most ambitious work is provided by Broughton, with his 21-minute, 5-section ‘A Primer for Malachi.’ Written for the impending birth of the composer’s grandson, the piece moves without interruption through various stages of life under the following headings: Flowing, Faster, Rhapsodically, Very Quick, Very Calm. The first opens with flute, cello and clarinet encircling each other in a vain search for unity, The pace picks up in part two, led by a piano as each instrument begins to speak with more self-confidence, if not the still sought-after coherence of maturity. Broughton  tosses thematic ideas out seemingly at random here, experimenting, rejecting, and again revisiting various concepts. Throughout this and the next section, Broughton continues his search for musical cohesion and order, not unlike a young man struggling to find his way in life. This begins to assert itself in part four, followed by a more tranquil maturity, finally, in the aptly titled final section.

Reel Life opens with ‘Odyssey,’ a piano-flute duet by jazz keyboardist James, whose primary Hollywood connection is the catchy title theme to the U.S. TV series Taxi. The piece opens explosively with both instruments boldly declaring themselves and then just as quickly turning tentative, as if suddenly self-conscious in each other’s presence. The piano eventually steps forward, followed by flute as the two begin a spirited dance, each taking turns at leading.

I can’t praise too highly the overall effort by Music Amici and its director, violinist Marti Sweet. Reel Life is a product of the efforts of Michael Whalen, Marvin Reiss, Jonathan Schultz and Charles Yassky, the latter also performing on the violin. The sound is crisp and intimate, as a chamber work necessarily must be. Bravos all around. I hope volume II isn’t far behind.


John Huether


John Huether

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