Interview With Steven Allen Fox
The music snobs may frown. But like it or not, film scores are proving themselves as the “classical” music for a new, non-mummified generation. For just as every composer from Bach to Beethoven wrote on commission for ideas that ranged from victory celebrations to funerals, today’s tunesmith’s are crafting melodies specially designed to accompany the twists and turns of moving images. Such is the pop power of their compositions that the music has gone full circle to the concert stage where it can be enjoyed on its own, purely sonic terms. For while many audience members who might grasp that they’re hearing Mozart after a few elegant notes, it seems that far more people are swooning in wide-eared recognition, and wonder, to the melodies from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Casablanca” and “Star Wars” that often accompany a pop concert- if not ones completely devoted to film music.
And therein lies the blessing and curse of evenings dedicated to the 20th century’s new musical art form- the ability to appreciate large orchestras approximating the magic of what’s heard on a Hollywood recording stage by a precious few. But with it comes the often boring familiarity from playing those same thematic chestnuts over and over again, all to satisfy those who never get tired of their favorites from such wonderfully populist composers as John Williams and Henry Mancini – without realizing the astounding repertoire that’s not only in their cinematic catalogues, but film music in general.
In the town where it all began, larger venues like The Hollywood Bowl mostly stick to the tried and true for the picnic basket crowd- even as its film music night conductor David Newman gets his one gloriously creative night a year with the American Youth Symphony Orchestra. But in the far off, far less glamorous zip code of San Pedro, The Golden State Pops, led by conductor Steven Allen Fox, are proving themselves to be the relatively “little” symphony that could in their home at the Warner Grand Theater. Composed with many younger players, the GPSO has more than equaled the Bowl, not only in terms of lushly powerful sound, but also programming. Where the other venue might stick to waving light sabers about or playing a portion from “Planet of the Apes” for an umpteenth, madhouse-inducing time, Fox’s dynamic choices have brought forth evenings of Halloween horror music, the bright sweetness of the Sherman Brothers Disney songbook, Jerry Goldsmith tributes, and most recently an evening devoted to Alan Silvestri. And while many of the familiar themes are there for commercial necessity, there’s a more than equal number of score pieces and suites that are making their LA debuts- inching us closer the kind of “true” score concert diversity offered by any number of European venues.
Now Varese Sarabande Records head Robert Townson, who’s championed these overseas celebrations (recently including China’s first film music concert) has chosen Fox and the GPSO to ring in the label’s 35th anniversary with a year of concerts that reflect the label’s astonishing output. The most lavish of these Varese-themed evenings will be a tribute concert on May 11th to celebrate the company that marked the first, real widespread release of over and under-the-radar score titles from Hollywood and Europe, as well as the now-prevalent idea of the “collector’s edition.” For while it’s great for these hardcore fans to hear the Varese-favorite likes of Georges Delerue, Elmer Bernstein, and yes, even John Williams, on CD, there’s nothing like the rush of hearing score / suites played live in front of you- especially as performed with the passion of Steven Allen Fox and the GPSO. Together, their mission to reveal film soundtracks as concert music of the first order has shown a group of cineastes who thrillingly aren’t whistling the same old screen-bound tune.
Could you talk about your musical career, and what led you to conduct the Golden State Pops Orchestra?
My career began while I was an undergrad at Illinois State University, where I co-founded a student pops orchestra that produced three concerts of film and Broadway music. After graduating my wife and I moved to Los Angeles where I attended USC studying film and television scoring. This has allowed me to find work as a film composer and as a conductor for various projects and groups in the area (theatre companies, orchestras, recording sessions and concert bands). Eleven years ago I found myself contemplating the next move in my career. I could spend the next 15 years auditioning for conducting positions, hoping an orchestra would buy into my vision for a symphony that focused on film music, or I could start my own orchestra. That is where the vision for GSPO began.
Have you thought that film music concerts have been getting trite by performing the same pieces over and over? And if so, how did you want to change that with the GSPO?
The reason you hear some pieces more often than others is due to quality and availability. Quality should be the largest test of whether something should be performed. Classical symphonies play Beethoven, Mozart, Wagner, etc., and repeat pieces many times across a series of seasons. That isn’t from a lack of music…but due to the high quality of those composers’ music. It is also based on the passion of the artistic and music directors, as well as the conductors. Art is only formed if there is a passionate connection to the music through the artists. With that said, an orchestra like GSPO that has a mission for film music, performing new works is much easier. This is a genre being created on a daily basis. It doesn’t mean that all of it is worthy of being performed, but it does mean the opportunity to perform new music that audiences will love is important and possible.
What is the struggle between art and commerce- i.e. giving the audiences what they want, but exposing them to new material?
It is always a balancing act of making sure audiences have a reason to buy a ticket while introducing them to new works of art. Most symphony orchestra’s pops concerts are used to raise funds for the company so they may continue to present art in their classical concerts. Our focus with GSPO is to present film music as art. This means that we must create a balance between well-known music that audiences love to hear, such as John Williams’ “Superman,” and less familiar scores that also deserve their place on the concert stage.
How come there isn’t more “score” in film music concerts, as opposed to playing themes?
Audiences many times want to hear the music as heard in the film. That is what they are attached to from the experience of watching the movie. On the other hand, you have a composer who is artistic. He/she composes a piece of music for a scene with a specific purpose that supports the visuals and dialogue. For them, taking the music out of that context and performing it without the visuals and dialogue is like eating an ice cream sundae without the hot fudge, whipped cream and nuts. All it is at that point is ice cream. Still good, but it doesn’t fulfill the purpose originally intended. So, to fix this many composers create concert suites of themes from the film, or a collection of cues, rewritten as they wish it to be heard as a concert piece. That way the composer feels confident the music fulfills it’s job as a stand-alone piece, without visuals and dialogue.
To go deeper the music you hear on a film is written, following the narrative of the movie. Music you hear in a concert is structured and developed according to thousands of year’s worth of musical growth and history. The way to structure of a piece of music that can properly convey a message to its listener very rarely is the same as the way a film narrative is put together.
What do you wish that film music fans knew about what you do?
It takes an incredible amount of work to produce each and every concert, from dealing with music publishers and marketing outlets to budgets and logistics the day of the concert. All of that work is necessary to reach our goal of bringing film music recognition as a true concert art form.
What’s the difficulty of finding, or creating sheet music for film score concerts?
To begin with, there is a misconception among the general public that an orchestra can perform anything they choose. In reality any performing organization must obtain permission from the copyright holder either through the purchase of the music from a publisher or through approval of a new arrangement for public performance. Often times the printed music is not available for an orchestra to perform. Studios typically do not have the budget or desire to create these concert pieces, forcing the composer or orchestra to front the funds themselves. Unfortunately neither of these parties sees any financial reward for their investment because the studios that hold the copyright receive the payments for performance.
How have you put together your players for the GPSO? And have you ever tried to “cast” certain instrumentalists for the pieces you play?
Originally GSPO started as a volunteer community orchestra. Within the first couple of years people seemed to enjoy playing enough that our list of musicians grew to the point where it became an auditioned ensemble. Today it is a contracted orchestra under agreement with the musician’s union. We have a contractor who fills the seats as needed, with many musicians as “regulars”, meaning they play more than 50% of our concerts per season. There has been many times where we select certain musicians based on their strengths when certain styles of music are necessary. We also hire specific people, or select specific music, based on solos.
Could you talk about the rehearsal process?
For GSPO the rehearsal process consists of two rehearsals that are 2.5 hours each, and a dress rehearsal the day of the show for two hours. For the amount and difficulty of the music we program this is a very intense process that demands the most out of these great musicians.
Who have been some of your favorite instrumentalists, or composers to work with?
Honestly, the musicians who play with us regularly, and just about every soloist or composer who has been involved, has been a thrill to work with. It is wonderful to see how kind and special most of the people are in this business. The composers find it thrilling for their music to have a second life on the concert stage, and the musicians love playing it.
You just had a great performance for an Alan Silvestri tribute night, where he conducted a suite from “Forrest Gump.” What are the benefits, and pressures, of having the person who wrote the music in the audience, let alone up at the conductor’s podium?
For me the pressure of having the composer be in attendance is whether we are doing his/her music justice. Once I have a sense they are pleased I relax quite a bit. It’s that feeling that we are on the same page that releases me to really do my job and allows me to create special moments in the music with the orchestra. The benefit is the energy created by having them in attendance or on the podium. It lifts the concert to new levels.
There’s the mental picture of a conductor furiously waving his arms about in front of the orchestra. Yet your own style isn’t “showy,” let alone distracting in that way. How did you develop your conducting approach?
I developed my conducting technique after studying with Dr. Stephen Steele at Illinois State. The philosophy I follow is that my job is to lead the musicians, in whatever way is necessary based on their abilities, so they can successfully perform the music according to my interpretation that blends with theirs. To me, that means showing them the emotion and intent, but without distracting them. Allowing them to do their job with confidence above all things. If this works and they perform the collective interpretation than my job is successful. For me, I would never want to do any physical movement that would take away from, or make them have to guess as to what they should be doing. Basically…”Here is where we are, and here is how I would like you to perform it”…period!
What have been some of your most rewarding film music experiences with the GPSO, as well as some of the most suspenseful?
There are far too many moments to write here, but here are a few. Working with Richard Sherman on the Sherman Brothers Tribute, and having him sing on stage with us for “It’s A Small World”. Working with Stu Phillips on the concert that celebrated his 80th birthday. I was sitting in his studio office prepping for his concert and he said to me, “How about this one?” With that he hit play on the “Knightrider” theme. I was transported back to my family room in the 80’s, lying on the floor ready to watch David Hasselhoff do amazing things. It was a “pinch-me” moment.
Some of my other favorite moments? Conducting on the stage of the Nokia for Video Games Live, and also at the Dorothy Chandler for Christmas Eve. Having Alan Silvestri as a guest. Conducting Memoirs with Cecilia Tsan. And all the many moments where the musicians and I have truly connected to create musical memories that go beyond the page. There are a few concert moments that seem to have been erased from my memory. There was the time in the Disney concert the video turned off in the middle of a piece, and didn’t turn on for another. And the time in “Joseph” or “Jesus Christ Superstar” (one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes) when the synthesizer had the wrong sound come out (but that was just funny). The suspenseful moments almost always have to deal with finances. So other than saying we are nonprofit and are always accepting donations, I won’t bore everyone with that.
What do you think is the correct concert size to perform score pieces properly? Have you ever not played a particular piece because you thought it wouldn’t be done justice?
There really is no difference between film music and a Classical concert piece with this topic. The composer’s intent is the goal. For film music the difference lies in how to achieve this in a live setting versus a recording. The responsibility of the orchestra is to cover the parts in such a way that the integrity of the composer’s intent is fulfilled. For example, recording eight French horns on a score may be the composer’s choice due to the sound the microphones capture. In the concert setting, the standard four horns usually will suffice for a piece.
Could you talk about the role of video projection in film music concerts? Do you think it’s a distraction from the “purity” of the piece, or does it enhance the experience by linking the appreciation of the music with the image? When do you choose to use it, and not?
I find that for mainstream audiences using film projection is a plus. It makes the orchestra experience more accessible and allows non-symphony-goers to experiment with attending a symphony concert. At the same time, if the music can live on its own without film it is always artistic to perform it alone. The reason is that with video there is a certain level of distraction. We are so use to watching film and having the music wash over us, there is some degree of that occurring during a concert if the visuals are included. In a nutshell, when using projection we prefer to limit it to a selection of pieces in the concert rather than the entire concert, especially if it is the actual cue as heard in the film. What helps us to decide if we should use it? Cost, for example. To project a live image from “E.T.” to music the cost is $500 per minute of music. That means the finale to “E.T.” would cost around $5000, to just project the last 10 minutes with “Adventures on Earth.” That’s quite expensive.
How did you become involved with Varese Sarabande? And how did you develop the program to reflect their “greatest hits” for the label’s anniversary?
Robert Townson attended our Goldsmith concert a couple years ago. Some months later on a flight back to the States he was thinking of how to celebrate Varese’s 35th Anniversary, realizing it needed to start in Los Angeles. His first thought was GSPO. When he landed he emailed me right away. From there the rest is history. As far as the music for the concert, that is something Robert has been handling. Typically, GPSO’s music director Victor Pesavento and myself create our shows, but we believe there is no one better to generate a great concert of the label’s music than the man who produced most of it for the label.
What can we expect for the tribute concert, and the rest of your score-themed performances this year?
Great film music that you know, great film music that you should know, and awesome guests!!!
How do your own personal tastes come into play for your film music programming? And what are your dream film score pieces that you’d like to play?
It is hard to explain how my tastes come into play. All of the GSPO concerts are created as a collaboration between myself and Victor Pesavento, who has been a great friend of mine since college. So in reality the concerts are a combination of what he likes, what I like, what our instincts tell us audiences will like, and what is available or realistic to perform. I guess it starts from what we are personally attracted to and grows from there. But in the end, it’s not really about what we like or dislike, and more about what we connect to, what is quality and what we think audiences will enjoy. I have been lucky enough to conduct many of my dream pieces. Some never get old and I would love doing again. Just about anything by John Williams is in that category. For me my real dream is to conduct at the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Concert Hall, with the Boston Pops, and to share the podium with John Williams. I am sure there are many dream pieces to come that just haven’t been written yet.
Have you ever had the desire to be a composer yourself?
I actually moved to L.A. specifically to be a film composer. Once I founded GSPO things went a different course with conducting becoming a larger part of my career, but I will always love and pursue my composition and hope one day to be working on A-list films.
What do you think of the orchestra’s role in film scoring now?
I feel the role of orchestras in film scoring will always be of the most importance. No matter how far technology takes us the benefit and reward of a live symphony orchestra can never be replaced or duplicated. History goes through cycles and music will sway away from the use of orchestras, and back again. But in the end, the real art will always come about from the live musician in the orchestra creating emotion the audience can hear and feel.
What’s been your game plan for letting people know that your “out of the way” orchestra in San Pedro is an international player in Los Angeles?
Considering that film music is loved worldwide we have focused on the quality of our performances and relationships with professionals from the film music industry to build the reputation that we have. For us performing film music is not just for commercial reasons. We take film music very seriously as true concert art.
You’ve made of point of using the Film Score Monthly board to tell fans about the GPSO concerts. How important to you think social media is, and is there any coaxing that you have to do to get fans of “pure” film music to check out your concerts?
Social media is extremely important. It reaches more people than most other avenues that cost money. The best form of marketing is word of mouth, and social media is the current trend of how to make that happen. As far as coaxing people to attend our concerts, that sometimes takes some work due to the fact that we are still an unknown name, in an unknown venue. Both of these are being worked on simultaneously.
What do you see for the future of the GPSO, and film music concerts in general?
I think concerts like “Star Wars In Concert” that toured a couple of years ago are just the beginning. These concerts have the ability to be “experiences” of enormous possibility. With everything we do our goal is to further the live performance of film music. However far the creative mind can go is where we are willing to venture.
Special thanks to GPSO Music Director of Victor Pesavento for answer assistance
Visit the Golden State Pops Orchestra Website HERE to buy tickets for the Varese Sarabande 35th Anniversary Concert on Saturday, May 11th, as well as to see their upcoming concert schedule
Visit Steven Allen Fox’s web page HERE