Having lived in Vienna for a year and a half now, it’s not uncommon to hear from others about how nice it must be to live in the so-called Capital of Music. With the Viennese Classical era occurring around the 1800s, legendary composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven became an integral part of Austria’s capital. But in terms of film music, Vienna is well known in Hollywood thanks to composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Max Steiner. If you don’t know the two, you need to change that as soon as possible.
Since 2009 Vienna began to celebrate Max Steiner, a man who is often revered as the “father of film music”; in an annual Concert Gala where some of our greatest film composers get awarded for their life’s work for “exceptional achievements in the art of film music” as it’s stated on their official website. The whole event takes place on two evenings which celebrate the greatest film music composers of our time under the name ‘Hollywood in Vienna’.
On both evenings, the concert is divided into two parts: In the first half, the audience can enjoy a journey through time that commemorates some of the greatest moments in film history in the form of a selection of iconic pieces from the history of music in film. It’s like a Greatest Hits compilation performed live that falls under a single topic. In the second part the Max Steiner awardee of the year is honoured and celebrated with some of his or – maybe in the future – her, best known pieces in the form of different suites.
You can watch the Star Trek Medley from 2013 below:
This year James Newton Howard will receive the Max Steiner Award for his achievements in recent film music history. While Lee called James Newton Howard “the most versatile composer that has ever lived” in a recent soundtrack review, the organisers behind Hollywood in Vienna take his suspense-packed scores for movies like Signs and The Village as the official topic for both evenings on the 15th and 16th of October’s: ‘Tales of Mystery.’
Getting from closed doors to too much demand
Last week I got the chance to speak with Sandra Tomek, the founder, producer and artistic director of Hollywood in Vienna. We spoke about how it all started and what everyone should expect from this year’s event. Beginning with her first steps towards the first concert in 2007, it really took me by surprise when she told me how difficult the whole venture was in its infancy; considering how Vienna was already famous worldwide for her musicians.
To start something new in Vienna is really difficult. In the beginning everywhere I ran I hit a closed door. Everyone told me that Film Music wouldn’t work in Vienna. But now our concerts are the bestsellers in the Konzerthaus. This year people even crashed the ticket servers because of the overwhelming demand for our show.
The Viennese Konzerthaus is a prestigious concert hall. You can read a bit about its history here on its official website.
Honouring James Newton Howard
So the venue and its main guest this year were responsible for ticket servers crashing, as well as tickets selling out like wildfire. Looking at the setlist for the second half of this year’s concert it is definitely understandable. Besides pieces from the already mentioned Signs and The Village, suites from Maleficent, Atlantis, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Pretty Woman, as well as others from The Prince of the Tides and One Fine Day will be performed. Also 16-time Grammy nominated musician Brian McKnight will perform ‘For The First Time’ off the One Fine Day soundtrack.
As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the audience will also get to experience the live world premiere of ‘The Hanging Tree’ from last year’s The Hunger Games soundtrack. Additionally, James Newton Howard’s score for Blood Diamond will also be performed live for the very first time and it just so happens to be among Sandra Tomek’s favourites of the evening:
I’m especially looking forward to Blood Diamond, because it is originally an electronic Soundtrack, that’s a big challenge to perform with an orchestra. We’ll play Pro Tools files alongside which we got directly from James Newton Howard himself and which we then reworked on our side. This means that the orchestra will play in tandem to the click with the electronic elements. We will additionally have a children’s choir, a mixed choir, an African choir and also the South African singer Velile Mchunu. It is hands down one of the biggest projects we’ve worked on.
Sandra told me that every year a lot of time is invested refining the suites her team receives from the composers. A team of Viennese composers led by Werner Stranka, Martin Gellner, Erich Hofman and Pawel Markowicz rearrange the suites carefully so that they fit into the concert as a whole. For this year, this happened not only for Blood Diamond but also with the suites from James Newton Howard’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight soundtracks. In this case, both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (co-composers for the scores) received the Viennese arrangement, reviewed it carefully and then personally signed off on the end result.
Celebrating cinematic suspense and mystery
But also the first half of this year’s concert has a lot to offer: Reaching from Franz Waxman (Rebecca), Marc Shaiman (The Addams Family), Alan Silvestri (Death Becomes Her) to John Debney (Phantom Manor), Jerry Goldsmith (Poltergeist) and Danny Elfman (Alice in Wonderland) to Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer (all Perfume: History of a Murderer) as well as Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen), Hans Zimmer (Da Vinci Code) and Alexandre Desplat (Benjamin Button); Hollywood in Vienna will take us on a epic cinematic journey from Hitchcock to Fincher.
While every score has its own appeal, Marc Shaiman’s score for The Addams Family is what excites Sandra the most for the first half of the show. Especially because it will work so well with the visuals, she told me as a little teaser.
Creating a global multimedia experience
For Sandra Tomek it’s really important not to have drops in tension during the show. She carefully goes through the entire programme countless times with her team to ensure that they appeal not only to hardcore fans, but also for casual listeners of film music. This consideration is not meant only for those in attendance within the classical hall; but all the viewers at home in 35 countries since Hollywood in Vienna began being broadcasted in 2011 courtesy of German Live Concert Distributor Unitel Classica. Such large scale distribution is not a rarity only in Vienna, but globally for Film or Classical Music concerts, hence the concert’s optimization is integral.
Speaking about optimization, it’s important to stress a factor that is crucial to Sandra. Hollywood in Vienna is not one of those typical orchestral concerts where all you get to look at is the orchestra for the entire duration of the show, no; since many months are spent creating and perfecting the best musical performances possible, accompanying visuals are created and honed to perfection, which is reflected in the masterful way that the show is edited during the event. An entire video team is led by Creative Director Michael Balgavy who turns the whole concert into a grand multimedia experience.
The prestigiousness of the Max Steiner Award
To give you a taste of the multimedia experience that the concert offers, you can find below the In Memoriam video for the recently deceased James Horner who received the Max Steiner Award in 2013, followed by a personal note by Sandra about how emotional the ceremony with James Horner was that same year:
Composers like James Horner often hear their music for the first time in concert hall during our show. I sat in the cutting room during the concert and because we had one of our cameras on him, I could see how he cried throughout the concert. It must have been incredibly moving for him. After the concert he told me he would like to stay in the hall for an extra half an hour just so he could take in the whole atmosphere.
Moments like these are what drive Sandra to continue what she and her team have built over these last few years. Furthermore she is very often told how incredibly important the award is for each recipient. Just like James Horner said in his speech (which is also included in his In Memoriam video) many even tell her how very special the Max Steiner Award is; even compared to the Academy Awards.
From a TV documentary to one of the biggest events in the Film Music industry
Just like how both parts of the concert are a journey through time and art; Hollywood in Vienna was Sandra’s own personal odyssey. As aforementioned; starting Hollywood in Vienna was a serious uphill battle, a battle whose roots began as a video documentary that Sandra had created:
While she had worked for several years as a specialist in internal medicine, Film Music always had a high priority in her private life as it “can transport emotions a movie often can’t convey without music.” Sandra also has a degree in Theatre and Music Sciences and had always wanted to do something within the field alongside her day job. But she never had any time for it. At one point in her career she decided to take a break and was able to meet John Mauceri, Founding Director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, at a concert in Leipzig, Germany. Not long after that, John Mauceri conducted the first Hollywood in Vienna concert in 2007.
Soon after, Sandra Tomek’s interest in the history of Viennese Hollywood composers grew even further and so she decided to go with a camera team to the USA to follow Steiner’s, Korngold’s and other Viennese film composer’s roots. During her time there, she met many major people from the industry and it all led to the TV documentary “Der Klang Hollywoods. Max Steiner und seine Erben” (The Sound of Hollywood. Max Steiner and his heirs). It aired at prime time in 2009 on Austria’s national TV channel ORF, as well as on Germany’s biggest culture television channel 3Sat, who were also on board as co-producers.
During her stay in the USA, Sandra was particularly impressed by how important Viennese composers were seen even till this day:
In the Warner Brother Studios we saw photos of Max Steiner and [Erich Wolfgang] Korngold above the Warner Brother brothers’ photos in the gallery. Additionally they still have the piano that Steiner and Korngold used back then with pictures of both of them placed on top of it. Viennese composers are still worshipped.
Even more motivated now, Sandra dedicated enough to let everything grow even further and so in the very same year, John Barry received the first ever Max Steiner Award in Vienna during the Film Music Gala Concert, followed by Howard Shore (2010), Alan Silvestri (2011), Lalo Schifrin (2012), James Horner (2013) and Randy Newman (2014).
Beyond the symphonic gala concert
Sandra is also responsible for setting up one of the first Film Music symposiums in 2009, which had talks that focused on the industry that went on for several days. Besides talks from big hitters within the industry, this year’s Symposium offers workshops with James Newton Howard as well as Richard Bellis. You can find out more info about it here. Sandra is also the one behind the Vienna Film Music Award (we visited 2010 winner Christof Unterberger last year in his studio) as well as the International Film Music Days Vienna.
Furthermore the concert series ‘The Sound of Hollywood’ is touring the world, with initial requests from Taiwan being followed by an avalanche of requests for Film Music concerts in other countries. Last year and this year, ‘The Sound of Hollywood’ toured Germany with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Nic Raine. You can find the setlist and venues of upcoming concerts once they are official, here.
Coming to a close it is important to say, that the workload behind Hollywood in Vienna is immense.
While the upcoming award recipient is usually selected before Christmas, Sandra still spends a lot of time listening to all of the the composer’s work, which goes in conjunction with her duties raising funds as one of the producers of the show and also reassembling the team during the early stages of a concert’s development. Aside from the creative aspects of creating the program, important matters such as music publishing rights need to be handled. This is then followed by clarifications of the movie rights with film studios and the personal rights of actors who appear in scenes that accompany the music during the concert.
Therefore a typical day in the life of Sandra Tomek consists of being bombarded from all sides regarding a plethora of matters. Last week for example also included everything that has to be prepared for the show’s television broadcast, which ranges from discussions regarding camera men, over to a walkthrough of the concert hall with the TV team, to several aspects regarding the broadcasting direction of it all.
I hope I was able to grant you a little insight into the many things relating to Hollywood in Vienna thanks to founder, producer and artistic director, Sandra Tomek. This year’s edition will take place on October 15th and October 16th and will honour James Newton Howard under the official topic ‘Tales of Mystery’. The concert will be performed by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Keith Lockhart. You can find out more info on Hollywood in Vienna on its official website as well as on Facebook.