James Newton Howard is my favorite composer of all time. Knowing this, you can probably imagine my excitement when, during summer of 2016, it was announced, that he would follow into the footsteps of his good friend Hans Zimmer and do a concert tour the following year.
Although I did attend the 2015 Hollywood in Vienna concert, which dedicated its second half to James Newton Howard (who was awarded the Max Steiner award), I knew, that this was going to be special. This wouldn’t be half a show of Howard, this would be only him for one evening, even having himself conduct the orchestra.
The months went by and with every single one, the anticipation rose as did the questions regarding the set-list: Which films would be represented? Which tracks and themes of those films? With a tour called “three Decades Of Music For Hollywood”, the possibilities were endless.
The fateful day
Then, on November 3rd of 2017, the day arrived. This was it. My first time ever in the gorgeous Royal Albert Hall. What a better place to start this tour off at? While looking for our seats, we finally had a chance to take look into the program and this is where things get a bit mind-boggling.
Of course, there was the predictable banter going on “Wait? Where is this? Why aren’t they playing that? Might this be the encore?” and while this is obviously mostly just personal preference there are still a few omissions that deserve some explaining.
What’s up with the program?
The real issue with the program is the way they listed the chosen pieces. For example, each film gets listed as its own, with the individual pieces from that film listed below. This works absolutely fine for, let’s say “Peter Pan”, which was a suite made up out of the pieces mentioned in the program. But take his “Hunger Games”-suite, for example. The booklet handed out makes it look like they are playing three separate suites: one for “Catching Fire”, one for “Mockingjay Part 2” and one for “The Hunger Games”. The sequencing of the films is totally out of order and this layout makes it look like the whole concert is really “Hunger Games”-focused, which, admittedly, would make some sense, given the popularity of that franchise, but it’s weird nonetheless.
Watching the actual show go on, clears things up: Howard actually performs one long suite, which consists of the listed cues. The film order might not be correct, but it makes sense in the progression of the suite, opening calmly and then building into a frenetic action set-piece, so far so good.
Now we come to the second head-scratcher of the evening: The listing of the individual cues. Going back to “The Hunger Games”, you will see that the second piece listed is “Peacekeepers”, which might already seem weird to you, considering it’s a rather anonymous suspense track with a little bit of action in it. “Are they really going to play the whole five minutes of this but no “Rue’s Farewell” at all?!” I hear you ask yourself, rightfully so and fortunately, they are not playing the whole track. They are just using the first few seconds of percussion to segway from “Katniss” into “Rebels Attack”. Why not just simply write “Suite From The Hunger Games” and leave it at that. Maybe, just maybe, list the chosen cues, but stress, that those are just EXCERPTS.
There are multiple tracks listed on the program, which are only played partly and funnily, in other instances, we have the orchestra performing cues, that are not listed at all and I am not talking about the encore. “Signs” is apparently featured only through the “Main Titles”, but in fact, they are performing bits of the two “Hand of Fate”-parts as well.
Each extreme has quite a few offenders and I will mention most of them, as I run through the concert, but I wanted to have this layout problem out of the way first because many people will look at the program and be confused by it. It’s nearly impossible to talk about the actual concert without addressing the insane program first and setting straight how to actually read it. Whoever was responsible, needs to reevaluate what he or she is doing in life.
But enough of the ranting. Let’s talk about the music!
The show starts: Snow White and the Huntsmen
The concert started with some prerecorded music from tape, leading into the first REAL piece: A shortened statement of the opening from last years masterpiece “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” (sans the “Hedwig’s Theme” cameo), which then transitioned into the first actual suite.
“Snow White And The Huntsman” proved to be a great starting point, showcasing a few of Howard’s trademark sounds: Good themes, beautiful piano, and powerful action music. The suite is pretty similar to the one he conducted during the World Soundtrack Awards 2012 in Ghent and while that was well performed, the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra blew it out of the park. Many people had issues with the overbearing synth-work in cues like “Escape From The Tower” and those people will have a blast with the completely symphonic rearrangement of the piece. It’s top-tier Howard-action-writing!
The “Snow White”-suite also had a little surprise in store: Projected on a screen behind the orchestra scenes from the respective movies (though not for every piece), sometimes even with dialogue! At first, it was a little distracting, after all, we were here to listen to the music, not watch the films! But thankfully, Howard used this gimmick sparingly, only for specific moments and most of the time it worked rather well.
The Hunger Games
The second suite was the already mentioned “Hunger Games”-suite, performed just as well. The percussion interlude from “Peacekeepers” seems to be the only time, where there were prerecorded synths playing in order to better recreate the album experience. It wasn’t really necessary, though and sticks out a bit, since other, synth-using scores like “Snow White” or “The Dark Knight” worked perfectly without them, so why persist on them here?
Apart from this, “The Hunger Games” also served another weird decision and the first big omission from the program: The complete absence of the popular, show-stealing “Rue’s Farewell” in any sort of form. This is arguably THE most famous piece from the first score and the most prominent recurring theme in the franchise, so it’s baffling why it’s missing. Even more baffling, when you think about how easily it could have fit into the performance of the “Mockingjay Pt. 2”-piece “Rebels Attack”, as that cue is basically just an extended version of the predecessor’s “Air Raid Drill”. That cue actually has a standout variation of the theme and, as we’ll see with other suites, Howard didn’t shy away from rearranging some of his cues, so it really wouldn’t have been that hard, to insert it into his suite. It’s not a piece I, personally, was missing that much, but I am fully aware that “The Hunger Games” might have been a big selling point for audience members who aren’t that familiar with his output (hence the big suite of the franchise to begin with) and “Rue’s Farewell” is a favorite among fans of the series, so not having it in here at all doesn’t make a lick of sense. Heck, “Horn of Plenty” wasn’t even written by Howard, but finds itself in the set-list.
To Neverland with Peter Pan
However, that confusion doesn’t last for long, because “Peter Pan” is coming to take you to Never-Neverland. And, boy, does he take you there. “Peter Pan” has always had a special place in my heart among Howard’s compositions and this suite reminded me why: Starting off with the first two minutes from the too-beautiful-to-be-allowed “Fairy Dance”, then segueing into “Flying” to close with the heartfelt “Peter Returns” the selections made to fill up the space are just superb and just as superb was the performance. This is also a score that features some pretty prominent synth-work in its original form, but here, Howard cut that section and beef up the choir instead and it pays off in an incredible way. Not necessarily “better” than the album-version, “Fairy Dance” however lulled you through its soothing vocals. Tears were creeping into my eyes, but I managed to hold them back.
Then, “Flying” made me burst. The moment flight-motif fully kicked in after that drum build-up, and the cut to Peter’s face, I couldn’t help it anymore, which makes this the perfect moment, to mention another great detail of the show: The footage itself.
I already mentioned, that scenes were shown during the performances, sometimes with dialogue, but I did not mention, that the montages were tightly edited to the suites, Howard created. Sometimes, like with the described “Flying”-scene, they chose to actually play the scene belonging to the music played at that exact moment, but most of the time, it was just “random” scenes. However, specific cuts happened during specific moments and it will come to show in the next, very big, suite, so hold on.
The Sixth Signs of The Last Shyamalan-bender happening in the Unbreakable Water Near A Village After Earth
Now we’re getting to something that was very, very personal to me: M. Night Shyamalan.
However maligned he may be these days, he is my favorite director of all time and a huge inspiration. Logically I was very pumped for Howard to get to his long-time collaborator. The director got basically three suites merged into one suite dedicated to him, starting off with a magnificent performance of “Signs” (my favorite film of all time), once again showcasing the brilliance of that score and it’s three notes.
Beforehand, he even sat down in front of the piano and played a little bit of “Hand Of Fate Pt. 2” himself, while explaining how he came up with that theme.
The actual full-orchestra performance of the “Signs”-suite was incredible. Adding a choir to the emotional finale of “Hand of Fate Pt. 2” was a stroke of genius and I can imagine, that he always intended that piece to sound like this, but the budget simply didn’t allow for a choir back in 2002.
The follow-up was “The Sixth Sense”. That suite didn’t really go for the themes of the film and instead concentrated on Howard’s atmospheric horror-writing (“Suicide Ghost) and the iconic “I See Dead People”-scene (with dialogue). After that came my personal number one highlight of the night, due to multiple reasons.
“The Last Airbender” is my absolute Number One score of all time and I already got to hear its epic finale, “Flow Like Water” performed live in Vienna in 2015, but this was something else. The orchestra really put all into it as did whoever edited the montages. This is where my point from the paragraph above comes full circle, because during “Flow Like Water”, the screen showed not only sequences from “Airbender”, but every single movie the pair did together and the editing was magnificent. Certain hits of the orchestral would perfectly align with a cut from one Shyamalan-film to another and the imagery chosen was perfect as well. For a fan of their long collaboration who likes almost each of these films, this was a dream come true and I couldn’t stop crying. They even played the more action-heavy last part of “Flow Like Water” that got cut from the Vienna concert and this performance alone was worth every penny I paid for this concert.
It’s also incredible, that there weren’t any screens for the orchestra. Usually, during live-to-screen performances where the music has to hit certain time stamps, the orchestra and at least the conductor will have a screen visible, telling them when a certain beat approaches through graphics and stuff…and there didn’t seem to be any, so the accuracy is just the more impressive! As far as I remember there has only been one ever-so-slightly mismatched bar and that is unbelievable!
Closing the first half of the concert was something calmer, to relax from the face-melting awesomeness that came before, so we get to a beloved 90s-Howard: “Wyatt Earp”. He reiterated how special this score was to him since his first son was born during production and that he always wanted to do a western, so he immediately jumped at the chance to score this one. It was a great, sweeping performance which will please the many fans of that score before it smoothly gave way to “The Hanging Tree”, the chart-breaking song from “Mockingjay Pt. 1”.
Based on a melody by The Lumineers, Howard’s arrangement proved to be a surprise hit in 2014 and, since Jennifer Lawrence (who sang it in the movie) vigorously hates singing, it was obvious that she wouldn’t join Howard on stage for the song. Various cities (including Munich, where I attended the concert for the second time) actually have competitions to find a local singer, but not London. Thus, the anticipation was very high: Who would be singing the fan-favourite? To everyone’s delight, his daughter, Anouk Ackerman entered the stage and gave a powerhouse performance! It was emotional, heartfelt and everything else you could want out of it and nothing beats her giving her father a loving kiss on the cheek after the song! How to better get sent into the break? (Sidenote: “The Hanging Tree” is not listed on the program at all, probably to keep it a surprise).
In Munich, Kenia Pawlik [listen to her submission] was the winner of the contest and did a commendable job as well. She really doesn’t have to hide from Lawrence or Ackerman.
Act 2 begins: Dinosaur
After the break, Act 2 kicked off with another famous score by the maestro: “Dinosaur”, an animated tale about a… well… dinosaur living through the Cretaceous period with his prehistoric friends. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that almost every millennial knows “The Egg Travels” since it played during the teaser which was on virtually every single Disney-related VHS those days, so it’s easily one of JNH’s more well-known cues, although the film itself faded a bit into obscurity. Due to the wild horn-motifs, this was probably the performance I was most worried about, as the horn section has a tendency to struggle with too many high, fast notes, but no problems here!
King Kong and the working process of JNH
From one movie about dinosaurs we come to the next: “King Kong”, directed by Peter Jackson. This one is infamous for its last-minute composer-change, leading to Howard having only three weeks to deliver almost three hours of music, which he obviously managed brilliantly. He gladly retold that story once again and then demonstrated his scoring process by the example of a scene that reportedly proved especially difficult to complete: The lovely ice-skating scene on the frozen lake of Central Park. He showed us the first 90 seconds of that scene with no music and then explained, how the love theme of the film (which then formed the basis of this cue) came to be only by accident and then played a bit of it, before going up his podium again, like with “Signs” before. It should be noted that he didn’t play by himself in Munich.
“Central Park” had always been a piece I wanted to see performed live, so I was really excited, not even a violinist hitting his mic could pull me out of it. What did pull me out of it, however, was that, from that five-minute piece, they only played the first two minutes. Just as things would start to get interesting, leading to that heartbreaking rendition of the love theme, the suite heads into a totally different direction and plays the action track “Captured” instead.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good track and some of those brass-motifs were also on my wishlist and the performance was great! But cutting of my most adored love-theme ever like this? This really broke my heart. It’s no deal-breaker and doesn’t undo the whole concert, but I cannot fathom how this happened.
James & Julia (Dave; Pretty Woman; My Best Friend’s Wedding)
After the crazy dinosaur-action, we return to one of Howard’s most prolific genres: the romantic comedy (preferably, but not exclusively, starring Julia Roberts). The lovely theme from “Dave” on piano starts the suite, which leads into the most famous unreleased track of Howard’s career “He Sleeps” from “Pretty Woman” and then we get into the comedic “Chase” from “My Best Friend’s Wedding”, while, similar to the Shyamalan-montage earlier, scenes from all the Roberts-movies Howard scored are screened, once again perfectly timed with the music.
If all this got too sweet and schmaltzy for your tastes and you long for something truly epic, don’t you fret, because Howard’s got your back.
Snow Falling On Cedars
Next on the list is “Tarawa” the insane choral power-horse from “Snow Falling On Cedars”. The primal percussion, the minimalist violins and obviously the apocalyptic choir made this piece one of the standouts of the evening! It didn’t even feature any footage from the film, just raw force pressing you into your seat! Faces will be melted.
The Gravel road
To calm down again, we get treated to another Shyamalan-piece: “The Gravel Road” from “The Village”. It’s a beautiful piece from a beautiful score and during the London show, violinist James Ehnes filled in for Hilary Hahn perfectly, simultaneously recreating the familiar sound of the original recording while also making this show his own. The only draw-back is the inclusion of the rather dull middle-section of that piece. We cut out “Rue’s Farewell” or the highlights of “Central Park” but we play this one in full instead of forming another suite, which would include the gorgeous ending of “Those We Don’t Speak Of” or at least some portions of “The Vote”? But well, the ambient part is only a minute long or so, so it wasn’t too big of a problem (but someone from the technical department forgot to mix the piano properly in the first few seconds).
The Limitless Possibilities Of Live
When the last note of the violin echoed away, we headed into “The Limitless Possibilities Of Life”, or at least this is what the booklet said.
No one had any idea of what this was supposed to be. That was no title of either film or cue Howard ever composed, so what was that?
The answer is, an honest, heartfelt and surprisingly funny short-film narrated by the man himself.
Said short-film covered the youth of Howard (who had fabulously amazing hair back then) dropping out of music school and trying to find work, jumping from lowly paid jobs (like stuffing pillows) to making mixtapes he tried to get to some label, with no success. As many of his fans know, this journey eventually got him the gig as Elton John’s go-to pianist for his tours, but this was logically a long way.
The short is adorably animated and when you are used to the more reserved Howard from his interviews, his narration will warm your heart. And who knew the man could be this funny? The entire hall was laughing with tears of joy and pure emotion. I would never have dreamt to see my musical idol, James Newton Howard, open up with this much honesty and I will never forget it either.
After the short, he sat down on the piano to perform one of the pieces, he put on that faithful record back then and this is when I learned, that, not only is James Newton Howard a great composer, but he is a damn good pianist as well. The piece moved into “Borealis” from his only non-film music related solo work, “James Newton Howard And Friends” (you know, the one with the greatest album cover in the history of ever), blowing our minds even further. Nobody expected this and it was amazing.
Blood Diamon and the inevitable Comparison to “Hollywood in Vienna”
The popular closing duo from “Blood Diamond” (“London” and “Solomon Vandy”) followed behind and while it was great and moving, I must say, that I slightly prefer the performance from Vienna two years ago. The female singer, Velile Mchunu (who also sang in Vienna) was mixed a little bit too loud this time and it was just too obvious that the choir was a bunch of white people trying to sound like African singers. Don’t get me wrong, they did their best and it was far from bad, but “Blood Diamond” is a tricky score to perform live, not easy at all and Vienna probably was just lightning in a bottle.
In Munich, Howard finally dared to ask Velile how to pronounce her full name (which, being Xhosa, includes a whole lot of clicking-sounds). This lead to a long speech by Velile which none of us ignorant Westerners understood, but it was mesmerizing nevertheless and Velile should be applauded for not taking offense in our confused laughing (which, granted, she would have had every right to do).
Velile might also ring a bell for some readers, since she is also the voice behind the 2010 smash-hit “Helele” [listen], featuring Safri Duo, that was written for the soccer World Cup that year. I was absolutely unaware of this and didn’t learn about it after the show in Munich. This meaning that I saw a chart breaking singer live three times without knowing it. The life of a soundtrack-fan.
The Dark Knight
One of the more popular films Howard scored, if not THE most popular, came near the end. “The Dark Knight” was the sequel to Christopher Nolan’s Batman-reboot “Batman Begins”, which Howard scored together with his friend Hans Zimmer (who apparently sat somewhere in the audience). It’s not my favorite score by Howard, but both have their highlights and the “Harvey Dent Suite” is certainly among them, so I was happy to experience it live, as well as the last portion of “Aggressive Expansion”. The latter was especially interesting, as it includes a short burst of Zimmer’s experimental, electronic Joker-material, but Howard decided to have it performed by the orchestra as well, and for some unknown reason, this gamble paid off! It’s really only just three or four atonal, harsh bursts, but it sounded amazing!
We also learned in Munich, that Howard gives the absolute worst Zimmer-impression ever. It was hilarious how he tried to imitate the speaking-patterns of his old friend.
Fantastic themes and where to lose them
The last suite of the official set-list was dedicated to Howard’s latest hit, the “Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them” [soundtrack review]. Cue the mixed feelings again.
Who on earth decided that it would be a good idea, to not play the main theme of the film at all? It’s one of Howard’s best themes he has ever written and certainly his best theme in the last few years and it already got the short end of the stick in the film, since David Yates decided to reduce its screentime, but it is still a testament to Howard’s genius and he does not play it? Was it because he knew Yates would attend the performance and didn’t want him to throw his seat at the stage? One can only guess, but this omission is borderline unforgivable. Of all the pieces I wanted to hear, this one seemed like an obvious one to me, but, alas…
Fortunately, the themes that GOT performed, were performed amazingly: The extended statement of Newt’s main theme from “Inside The Case”, his “Hero Theme” in all it’s various glory and the big variation of the “Healing Theme” from “Newt Releases The Thunderbird” almost made me forget the sin of not including the main theme.
The piece ended, fans cheered (even screaming “We Love You, James!” and holding up a bedsheet with the same sentence on it) and Howard left the stage, only to return for the encore!
Encore #1: Maleficent
What would it be? Our guesses were either “Lady In The Water” or “Maleficent” (wishing for the former, expecting the latter) and “Maleficent” it was. “Suite From Maleficent” and “Queen Of Fairyland” to be exact and it was wonderful. There has to be a shout-out to the poor tuba-player, though! During his solo, the harp got the spotlight (she was great, too!) but he was completely ignored, which saddened me!
Encore #2: Not Lady in the Water
Howard left the stage again (“We still love you, James!”), as did some of the (more obnoxious) audience members. We couldn’t bring ourselves to leave, hoping for a second encore, so we stayed seated. And indeed! Howard returned yet, again! The crowd went wild in a way you would expect for some huge rock-band or maybe Hans Zimmer, but not the calm, reserved James Newton Howard and it was obvious that he didn’t expect this either, as his fleeing voice implied.
This was going to be it. Now we were going to hear “Lady In The Water”, we thought, just as he announced that the next and truly last piece would be “Prince Of Tides”.
To be perfectly honest, we were a bit disappointed. Yes, it makes sense to have that score in here, since it was Howard’s first Academy Award nomination and yes, the performance was superb and yes, it has its fans. But one can’t deny that it’s not really “Second Encore”, material. Especially not if you hold back something as big as “Lady In The Water” (look at his Spotify-stats, this score has a lot of fans!).
Also, it would have made more sense, to switch the two encores. “Maleficent” has such a bombastic, definitive ending, it would have been perfect to bring the whole show to a close, but instead, we left after this calm, sweet string-piece, not bad, but not really a show-stopper, either.
In Munich, however, I learned, that they did drop “Prince Of Tides” altogether after the premiere, making it a London-exclusive. Thus, the concert indeed does end with a bang and I must say, that it is much more satisfying. Of course, I am well aware, that personal bias is playing in here as well since I am not too much a fan of that early Howard-score, but I know that there are quite a few fans who have much appreciation for this one. I can imagine that it must be frustrating, to then learn, that it actually was performed…just not in your city, so my condolences to anyone who was hoping for this particular soundtrack to be featured.
So, what are my thoughts on the concert as a whole?
While I might not be as enthusiastic as one (and me myself) might have expected, I can still say that I absolutely loved it but I would lie if I wouldn’t admit to being a tiny bit disappointed at some choices. Why was the wonderful theme from “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” not in the “Snow White”-suite? Why was “Rue’s Farewell” missing? Why gut the insanely brilliant “Central Park” halfway through? Why was neither the main theme nor any of Jacob’s themes played during “Fantastic Beasts” and why did “Lady In The Water” get completely ignored, sans scenes of it playing during “Flow Like Water”?
These are all small missteps that aren’t too bad on their own, but they add up and do leave a bitter taste in my mouth. However, I can’t ignore the absolute brilliance of the “Flow Like Water”/Shyamalan-montage, the uniqueness of the “Limitless Possibilities Of Life”-segment or the general quality of the orchestra, the deeply personal level of Howard’s narration through the evening, the tear-inducing “Peter Pan”-suite, the intricate, detailed editing and perfectly synced-up performance or the simple fact to be able to experience a show like this in the Royal Albert Hall!
After one and a half years of anticipation, it was only natural that there would be some disappointments in the program, of course, they can’t play everything, fans of “Waterworld”, “The Fugitive”, “I Am Legend” or “Water Horse” will have the same experience. But if what actually WAS played doesn’t move you, then you have no heart.
If you have the chance to witness this concert, do it! It’s a revelation and I am now surer than ever, that it will be a long time until someone dethrones James Newton Howard as my number 1 favorite musician of all time!
(P.S.: As implied above, James Newton Howard conducts pretty well for someone who got told once to never do it again by a string quartet! If you have seen him conduct during the WSA 2012 in Ghent, don’t worry, he really upped his conducting-game!)
Cover photo credit: Paul Sanders