A couple of bars is usually all it takes for the movie in one's mind to start rolling again. A steely tattoo of percussion, an impudent whistling tune, and there he is – Steve McQueen, motorbike revving for The Great Escape. That, said veteran Lord of the Reels, Elmer Bernstein, was one way of characterising the first half of this Proms Movie Music special. He dedicated it to the whole raft of Europeans who made their "great escape" to Hollywood when the Nazi scourge began.
They were a diverse group, their music as distinct from each other's as it was possible to be, but, by a kind of collective telepathy, they created the Hollywood sound. And it was born big to grow bigger.
The BBC Concert Orchestra were at full strength, and then some: six horns, five trumpets, as many strings as the Albert Hall "soundstage" could fit. The official "Overture" was from Miklos Rozsa's score for William Wyler's 1959 remake of Ben-Hur – music actually written to be heard before the curtains opened and the film began. That's how seriously Hollywood took its music. Nobody wrote luscious Hebraic themes like Rosza, though Bernstein had a good crack at it with Ten Commandments. Occasionally, his musical locationing sounded closer to Oregon than Mount Sinai, but, hey, with Chuck Heston as Moses, who gave a...
Yes, Scarlet and Rhett were there, too, in Steiner's indelible theme. And there was Erich Korngold, who just made it out of Austria with his life. Hitler signed the Anschluss days after he arrived in Hollywood to view rushes for The Adventures of Robin Hood. His was the quirkiest voice, Robin's "merry men" marching to the tune of two xylophones and some "subversive" Viennese harmonies. If only Bernstein had put more of a spring in their step.
Which brings me to the biggest problem with the evening. No one values Bernstein's contribution to film music more than I do, but he's a very cautious conductor. A succession of highly calorific nuggets like this need energising and characterising in ways that eluded him. Nothing ever quite caught the music in full-cry. The rhythms didn't excite, the tempi were too deliberate, and in the case of Copland's Red Pony, just plain pedestrian.
No, the evening only really came alive when ace saxophonist John Harle emerged through the fug of 50 years of smoke-filled rooms shot in grainy monochrome, and Holly-wood's sleaze-factor came into play: Raskin's Laura, Waxman's A Place in the Sun, Bernstein's own brassy The Man with the Golden Arm. Best of all, Herrmann's last score for Taxi Driver, with Harle streetwise and lonely, all aching melismas and primal howls at the moon. Hollywood on the edge, this Prom at its best.
This Prom will be repeated on BBC Radio 3 on 4 January 2002; www.bbc.co.uk/promsReuse content