NYE Hats and a Borrowed Baton

01.03.11
Richard Kaufman
News-Press Correspondent

By Josef Woodward

For the 20th annual New Year’s Eve gala, the Santa Barbara Symphony went to the movies, courtesy of conductor Richard Kaufman’s program of Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning music from across the decades

As the hours of 2010 waned, the Santa Barbara Symphony tickled the fancies of a sold-out Granada theater on Friday night, celebrating an “out of season” tradition now 20 years deep.

Not surprisingly, the fare was light and “pops”-ish this time out with frequent New Year’s Eve guest conductor Richard Kaufman taking the orchestra “to the movies,” with a program devoted to Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated songs over the decades.

Somewhat surprisingly, the light-hearted (and light-headed) evening also offered a fascinating survey of film music tidbits appreciable on purely musical terms, without the film image to get in the way. With this program, besides entertaining the well-heeled troops in the crowd, Mr. Kaufman, who has worked extensively in Hollywood in various musical capacities, assembled an intelligent, selective overview of Hollywood musical thought, touching on many of the great movie composers, and giving those paying attention a sense of the by-now rich and deep indigenous culture of Hollywood music.

We knew this was a symphony concert of a few different colors, not only by the musical menu, but also the presence of hats and hooters in the house. The sound of grown concertgoers giddily hooting between musical pieces — sometimes jokingly conducted in the collective hooting — added a slightly surreal, bubbly air to the occasion. Not for nothing did Mr. Kaufman open the program with the song from “Gigi,” “The Night They Invented Champagne.”

Bubbles notwithstanding, there was much serious musical intrigue and warming familiar themes in the evening’s mix, given proper polish by the clean-machined sound of the Santa Barbara Symphony. Further cinema-historical reverberation was reasonably linked to the fact of the original Granada’s legacy as a movie house of note, going back to the silent era, pre-Oscars.

On this night, chronology swerved back and forth over the decades. Nino Rota, internationally best known for his great body of music for Fellini films, is best known in America for his “Godfather” music, heard in a suite form here. Other legendary composers represented here included John Barry (from “Out of Africa”), Miklos Rozsa (“Ben Hur”) and Maurice Jarre (“Dr. Zhivago”). John Williams, one film composer whose movie music is frequently granted stage time (including a program a few years ago at the Santa Barbara Bowl, with Mr. Williams conducting), was given only a morsel of a spotlight here, thankfully, to the tune of “Flying Theme” from “E.T.”

An emotional local angle emerged as the band played the “To Kill a Mockingbird” theme, penned by the late, longtime Santa Barbara-based composer Elmer Bernstein, and with his widow, Eve, in the house. In other local angles, once removed, the concert’s first half closed with the neo-Western frontier-ist sweep of Bruce Broughton’s score for “Silverado,” the cast of which included on-and-off Santa Barbarans John Cleese and Kevin Costner.

As Mr. Kaufman explained about “Gone with the Wind,” amidst anecdotal trivia, Max Steiner’s instantly identifiable and handsome music amounts to “the greatest film score that did not win an Oscar.”

Mr. Kaufman’s gifted daughter, Whitney Claire Kaufman, was the evening’s guest vocalist, in this theater where she previously performed as part of the national touring production of “Mama Mia.” She fared beautifully, in tone and phrasing, on songs ranging from the first Oscar-winning song, “The Continental,” (from “the Gay Divorcee”) to “The Trolley Song” (“Meet Me in St. Louis”), “When You Wish Upon a Star” (“Pinocchio”) and the more modern “Colors of the Wind” (“Pocahontas”), with “Que Sera, Sera” and “Over the Rainbow,” for good classic measure.

Dipping into another long-standing tradition at these New Year’s Symphonic ventures, Mr. Kaufman briefly turned his podium over to an amateur conductor, the Symphony Board’s Patricia Gregory, who won the annual honor of a guest shot in front of the orchestra. Bedecked in a spangled red-sequined jacket, Ms. Gregory gamely waved her arms in the general direction of the orchestra, and also turned around to conduct the audience in the famously perky whistle-along section in Kenneth Alford’s “Colonel Bogey March,” from “Bridge Over the River Kwai.”

In that giddy moment, the spirits of New Year’s Eve revelry, audience-orchestra interaction and the power of movie music over the collective unconscious converged in a gush of noisy joyousness. All in all, Friday’s concert was not at all a bad way to bid adieu to the old, and greet the new with a brave grin and a whistleable tune.