Hollywood's Super Orchestra

Adrian Edwards Mon 20th February 2017

For all the talk of the 'top five' America orchestras, it was a Hollywood studio that gave birth to one of the greatest of them all, writes Adrian Edwards

Alfred Newman conducts the Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra in the Prologue of the film How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Photo: Photofest

Alfred Newman conducts the Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra in the Prologue of the film How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). Photo: Photofest

From the moment Al Jolson appeared on screen in 1927 singing ‘My Mammy’ in his inimitable manner, it was inevitable that the coming of sound would have an enormous impact on the Hollywood studios, which launched a vigorous campaign of recruiting musicians for their new studio orchestras. When Daryl F Zanuck created Twentieth Century Fox in 1935, he appointed Alfred Newman, a New Yorker, as general music director in charge of all production. The new Twentieth Century Fox logo required a signature tune and Newman came up with a brassy 13-second fanfare that became the most famous opening theme in all film music. Newman, who was at Twentieth Century Fox from 1939 to 1959, was its chief architect, marshalling orchestrators, copyists, arrangers, musical directors and players to the task in hand. They worked from offices on the lot, never sure of what film they would be working on from one day to the next! Newman composed prolifically, amassing 45 Oscar nominations for original scores and adaptations.

Leonard Slatkin recalls that the sound of Newman’s Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra was by far the lushest of all the studio orchestras. It was also the most virtuoso. ‘Actually, with all the orchestras, each of them had their own sound,’ says Slatkin. ‘They had their own kind of music because of the composers they were engaging. So if you look at it, you have the Korngold style of sound coming from Warner Brothers, and over at Fox you have the sound of Alfred Newman.’

As a boy Slatkin had grown up close to the studio, where his father Felix was concertmaster. You can see him leading Newman’s orchestra, playing their hearts out, at the beginning of the film How to Marry a Millionaire, with the strings using full bows and the ensemble producing a rich, full sound. This cinematic overture was a ruse to promote the four-track stereophonic splendour of CinemaScope, the studio’s new widescreen process that was introduced in 1953 to draw audiences back to the cinema from their television screens. Newman’s players, all of them in black tie, sat on a terraced sound stage playing his ‘Street Scene’, long a favourite piece of studio boss Zanuck, who sent a memo requesting Newman use ‘Street Scene’ wherever it fit! Zanuck was a tough man to please and ‘Al’, as he was affectionately addressed by Zanuck, knew not to cross him. He was rewarded with most generous studio time. Musicals star Gordon MacRae recalled in a BBC radio interview that his recording of the ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel, lasting seven minutes, was recorded in one take after Newman had had his orchestra in the studio all day for rehearsal. Newman encouraged much new talent during his tenure, including John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann. Earlier, Newman had signed Stravinsky to compose a score for The Song of Bernadette. His music never made it to the screen but the composer reworked it a little later into the second movement of his Symphony in Three Movements.

The Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra included some star players who were on the studio payroll on very good salaries, full-year employment at five days a week, with wonderful healthcare and benefit payments. With such attractive terms it was no wonder that this studio, and others, were able to recruit the best players on the West Coast of America, leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic as their inferior at that time. When Bruno Walter and Stravinsky conducted in Hollywood, it was studio players from across the West Coast that they turned to, under the title Columbia Symphony Orchestra. As Slatkin recalls, ‘Because they came from different studios, it was a bit of ‘take that sound from here, or there’. They played well but they didn’t sound like a totally cohesive orchestra.’

The Slatkin family were also associated with Warner Brothers, for whom Felix’s wife, Eleanor Aller, played first cello; her brother, Victor Aller, was the pianist. As Slatkin remembers, ‘The Warner studio was a little bit drier than the Fox sound stage, so their sound was leaner because of the nature of the studio’. His family appear on many Warner soundtracks. ‘If you want to hear my mother in film work, there’s no question you have to get the film called Deception with Bette Davis – that’s the film for which Korngold wrote the Cello Concerto and it’s my mother playing.’ Slatkin continues, ‘You can see and hear my uncle Victor in a tacky film called The Beast with Five Fingers, a thriller in which he plays a pianist who can only use one arm, and all he plays is the Bach Chaconne in a transcription by Brahms. And then my dad played electric violin, the first time it was employed on screen, on the soundtrack to Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.’

Felix Slatkin and his wife Eleanor founded the Hollywood String Quartet, which Felix led with Eleanor on cello, Paul Shure as second violin and Paul Robyn viola. Unsurprisingly, the young Leonard led a rather lonely existence. ‘My brother and I really didn’t see our parents very much. They’d be at the studios during the day, then they’d come home at night, we’d have dinner and then two members of the quartet would come over and that was the last we saw of them.’ The sound of the Twentieth Century Fox Orchestra was reflected in their quartet, where the Hollywood style of string-playing merged with their Russian émigré inheritance, rich with rubato, portamento and colour – a sound Slatkin vividly recalls today. ‘I find myself almost hearing my parents and the ensemble they played with. Depending on the repertoire, I try to get some of that sound into the orchestras that I work with.’ The quartet’s association with Capitol led them to record a number of light music albums, including Frank Sinatra’s ‘Close to You’. Nobody in that household questioned the quality of the genre of music – if it was good of its kind, they performed it.

When Alfred Newman departed from Fox in 1959, the orchestra continued under the direction of his brother Lionel. Their legacy now resides with the 75-piece Hollywood Symphony Orchestra, formed in the early 1990s to prevent work going to London and Prague at cheaper rates. It has since played on countless soundtracks to much acclaim.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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