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Tuning up for Violin at the Movies

One of the best things about The Violin at the Movies for me is that I’ll be working with my old friend Gavin Sutherland. Long term followers of Northern Ballet will remember that Gavin used to be Assistant Conductor here many years ago, before leaving to pursue a freelance career as conductor, pianist and arranger.

Geoffrey Allan, Leader of Northern Ballet Sinfonia. Photo Justin Slee.In all of these fields he has been incredibly successful, and is at present Principal Conductor of English National Ballet. Brilliant though he is with the classics, Gavin’s special enthusiasm is for the lighter sphere of music – film and television music, jazz and popular song and the genre we call simply “light music”. Since I share many of his tastes, it may seem surprising that we haven’t combined forces in quite this way before. Certainly I have led orchestras for Gavin in light music concerts, and we even made a recording together of pieces for violin and orchestra by the wonderful film composer, Angela Morley, but this is the first time that we have performed together as violinist and pianist in a concert devoted to music from the movies.

The title The Violin at the Movies allows us a lot of latitude with regard to repertoire which we are happy to exploit! We are including a wide variety of pieces which have a connection with the silver screen, but I’d like to mention here some films featuring violinists as central characters. Some of these movies are more remarkable for their musical content than their plots, especially as some of the very greatest violinists have contributed to their soundtracks. For example, Humoresque (1946), in which Isaac Stern’s violin is heard as John Garfield portrays the young concert violinist with whom Joan Crawford becomes obsessed. Franz Waxman wrote his Carmen Fantasy for the movie, an extremely difficult reworking of themes from Bizet’s opera.  Whilst mentioning Isaac Stern, another item in our programme was also performed by him on screen. John Williams’ Main Title music for Fiddler on the Roof (1971), a brilliant compilation of themes from the musical, is played over the opening credits, behind which we see the angular profile of the eponymous “fiddler” apparently performing on his precarious perch.

 The irreplaceable Michael Rabin (one of the finest players of all time, who tragically died whilst still a young man in 1972) provides the soundtrack for Vittorio Gassman’s violinistic miming in Rhapsody (1954). Gassman’s character decides in the end that his violin wins in the struggle for his affections with Elizabeth Taylor, and one critic found the decision inexplicable, so enamoured was he with the beautiful star. Rabin, on the other hand, only 17 at the time he recorded the music for the film, wrote home, ‘My God, you should see Elizabeth Taylor – is she an idiot!’ He was unimpressed by her pink Rolls Royce, French poodles and other affectations. We include a ravishingly beautiful piece by Debussy, La Plus Que Lent, which Rabin plays at a romantic moment in the film.

Jascha Heifetz starred as himself in They Shall Have Music (1939), although the famous violinist told Samuel Goldwyn that he would not act. He does in fact have one or two speaking scenes in this story about a struggling music school which is saved from closure by the celebrated musician visiting to give a concert. But Heifetz is true to his word, showing almost no emotion when his stolen Guarnerius violin is returned to him. Heifetz included (as do we) his transcription of the well-known popular song Estrellita (Star of Love) by the Mexican composer, Manuel Ponce. We noted that in all of the above films the Finale of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto is to be found, either complete or in part. Perhaps that work seemed to epitomise the brilliant concert virtuoso’s repertoire to their respective directors. Whatever the reason, we needed no further encouragement to programme one of the most sparkling and perfect compositions for the violin ever written.

Gavin and I are having our first rehearsal very soon, so I will write the second part of this blog after Northern Ballet’s week at Sadlers Wells in London which we all hope is a great success. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia has been enjoying playing Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for The Great Gatsby this season, which also draws on film music and even jazz. It is a strange coincidence that I have never before played a note of music on my violin by the songwriter Michel Legrand, and in the same year that I have a solo in his You Must Believe in Spring in the ballet, Gavin and I will be performing I Will Wait For You in our concert. I’m looking forward to London, and my rehearsal with Gavin!

The views expressed in blogs are those of the author and not necessarily of Northern Ballet.