An orchestral tribute to the Oscars is taking place at the Sage Gateshead with conductor Carl Davis at the helm as David Whetstone explains
Carl Davis has just flown (safely) back from Kuala Lumpur, take off point for the doomed Flight MH370 and scene of heartbreak and consternation.
“I got back yesterday so I’m very, very jet-lagged,” says the 77-year-old conductor and composer.
“I flew out of Malaysia on Monday morning and the terrible accident which has obsessed the country took place on Saturday. I was there. It was very scary.
“I announced at my concerts that we were all thinking of the victims.”
We can only imagine the strange brew of emotions. If there is one thing that characterises a Carl Davis concert it is joie de vivre.
As well as being a hugely accomplished all-round man of music, he is a showman, a crowd pleaser, an infectiously enthusiastic presence on stage. The memory of his gold cape, worn with a flourish when he last appeared at Sage Gateshead – with Honor Blackman in a concert of Bond theme tunes – is still etched on my mind.
Hopefully, there will be more of the same – untainted by tragedy – on Sunday when he returns to Hall One to conduct the Royal Northern Sinfonia in a timely concert called Oscar Winners!
Kuala Lumpur to Gateshead in a week. “That’s the musician’s life,” says Carl. “If all goes well Kuala Lumpur is a 13-hour flight so you’re stuck on a plane for a very long time.
“I used to have all sorts of plans about what I’d do to use the time wisely, but I tend to get on the plane after I’ve been doing concerts and really just stare into space. I’ve stopped having big ambitions for how I’d use the time.
“The day after your concert I’m flying to Luxembourg to do one of my silent film shows and then I’m going to Los Angeles to do the premiere of a new score for a marvellous Harold Lloyd film.”
All this is delivered in the tone of a man about to pop to the Co-op for a bag of sugar and some teabags, albeit with the characteristic Carl Davis perkiness.
But what of the Oscars concert? “Cash cows I like to call them,” says Carl with disarming honesty and a chortle.
Bond, Oscars… they pull in punters who wouldn’t dream of buying tickets for an orchestral concert devoted to Beethoven or Bach. But once in their seats, says Carl with an air of conspiratorial mischief, they can be fed all sorts of classical morsels.
“There was that terrific film, The King’s Speech, where the climax comes as the King, speaking clearly, is announcing the start of the Second World War.
“It unfolds to the slow movement from Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It wasn’t Beethoven who got the Academy Award but it gives me licence to play the music and I’ll make sure I tell the audience what it is. I think you have to ‘put it over’, so to speak.”
That rapport with the audience is one of the appealing things about a Carl Davis ‘cash cow’ and it’s rare in the field of orchestral performance. Knowing his audience on Sunday might be film fans rather than classical music fans, he will lead them by the hand.
And he will be joined on stage by another great talker, venerable film critic Barry Norman.
Mention of the name brings a guffaw of fond reminiscence. “This is the third or fourth time I’ve worked with Barry and it’s always great,” says Carl.
“One thing that’s very funny is that if we’re doing something from a film he didn’t like especially, he tells you. He’ll say, ‘I didn’t like this film at all. I thought it was, quite frankly, awful.’ That always makes me laugh.”
What Carl Davis doesn’t know about music is possibly not worth knowing.
Born in New York, he came to the Edinburgh Festival in 1961 trailing a burgeoning reputation and was commissioned by Ned Sherrin to write the music for landmark satirical show That Was The Week That Was. He stuck around and in 1970 married the British actress Jean Boht (Nellie Boswell in TV sitcom Bread).
Since then he has written many landmark TV themes (Up Pompeii!, The World at War, Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years) and conducted big orchestras including the London Philharmonic, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and, of course, the Royal Northern Sinfonia.
He spans the broadest musical spectrum and is drawn to film, he says, “because it has provided such a richness of repertoire.
“It really is quite extraordinary that ever since 1934 there have been Oscars for music. There are three categories and I try to reflect all of them in these Oscars programmes.
“One category is best original score, so you have Chariots of Fire (Vangelis, 1981) and Out of Africa (John Barry, 1985), and then you have best song, such as Skyfall (a winner for Adele and the James Bond franchise in 2012).
“There used to be a category for best adapted score, such as West Side Story or Oklahoma! We’ll open on Sunday with some music from Chicago which started as a Broadway show but went on to win six Oscars.”
Released in 2002, the film won Best Picture – the first musical to do so since Oliver! in 1969 – and best supporting actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones.
The first Oscars were presented in 1929, for films released the previous year, but this was the silent era and the Oscars for best original song and score weren’t introduced until 1934 when the talkies started taking the cinemas by storm.
Carl recalls his early movie-going in New York. “There was a cinema on the corner of the street we lived on. It was mostly black and white, of course, because this was the 1940s, but I went every week to see my double bill.”
Was he struck by the music? “Immediately. I think one of the first things I saw was Fantasia, Walt Disney’s interpretation of classical music, and it had a tremendous effect on me. I was seven and I really do remember a lot about it, the way the music was visualised on the screen.”
It is in the area of silent films, before the technology existed to synchronise film with soundtrack, that Carl Davis has enjoyed notable success.
He recalls how, in 1980, he was given the chance to create a score for a silent film – Abel Gance’s Napoleon, released in 1927 – and the succes of that innovation led to a commission from Channel 4 to create a cycle of scores for old films then in the process of being restored.
“That helped to bring about a revival of interest in those silent films and in the live performance of scores. It seems that ever since that time I haven’t stopped adding to the repertoire and with the coming of DVD and Blu-ray I’ve got a continuous stream of releases of old films to create new scores for.”
The forthcoming Los Angeles premiere concerns the “wonderful” Harold Lloyd film, Why Worry?
“Probably this will bring my Harold Lloyd period to a close because I’ve now done about five of his features. This one is about a hypochondriac so I’ve had the honour of composing a pill theme. I just loved the idea of doing that.”
Carl hasn’t enjoyed the accolade of an Oscar himself but he did compose the music for two well-known films: The French Lieuitenant’s Woman, released in 1981, and Champions (1983) which was based on the poignant Grand National victory of one-time equine crock Aldaniti and jockey Bob Champion, who beat cancer to get back in the saddle.
“I won a Bafta for The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” says Carl. “In fact, I’ve won four Baftas, mostly for TV things.”
So, no Carl Davis score or song on Sunday. But concert-goers will benefit from the force of his personality, that massive movie repertoire and the sound of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the mezzo soprano Heather Shipp who, according to Carl, can ‘cross over’ effortlessly from opera to jazz via Broadway show.
It should be a blast.
Oscar Winners! is on Sunday at 7pm in Hall One of Sage Gateshead. Tickets from the box office: 0191 443 4661 or firstname.lastname@example.org