James Newton Howard’s violin concerto: a film composer in the concert hall

Last Friday night I attended the world premiere of James Newton Howard’s concerto for violin and orchestra, performed by Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa. I was excited to hear Howard’s writing removed from the constraints of film and inside a traditional concert form. His violin music for films like The Village and Defiance (the two scores that specifically prompted Pacific Symphony’s music director Carl St. Clair to commission the concerto) are gorgeous demonstrations of Howard’s imagination for the instrument, so there was ample reason for excitement at the thought of a whole concerto.

Howard preceded the performance with a brief Q&A, admitting the commission was “liberating but intimidating,” and took him out of his comfort zone. (We were informed that the performance was being recorded for a forthcoming Naxos release.)

Violinist James Ehnes flawlessly executed Howard’s music, as did the orchestra behind him. There were plenty of dazzling cadenzas and rapid-fire passages to show off Ehnes’ chops, as well as moments of elegant elegy. The first movement opens with high trilling figures on strings like a babbling current of water, which the concerto’s main theme glided across on Ehnes’ violin. Alternating between elegant lines over deep, warm chords and moments of tempest and giant foot stomps by low brass and percussion, the movement ebbs to a close on the same undulating string trills.

The second movement is built around a simple, childlike melody (dedicated to St. Clair’s son, who died as a baby sixteen years ago), which Howard called the “centerpiece of the concerto” in his program notes. The melody debuts on solo clarinet, soon surrounded by woodwinds, and then assumed by violin with the support of rich, complex harmonies. This movement travels through a romantic passage of wanderlust, then sadness, before returning again to the opening wind theme. The second movement bled without pause into the third, sparking frenzied violin figures and stormy orchestration before oozing into a wild, jaunty dance. The orchestra dropped out and Ehnes traced a tragic narrative, chased by wild runs. A wild storm of cymbal thunderclaps and quick pizzicatos brought the concerto to a choppy, sudden close.

The music never strayed from pleasant tonality, so you could argue that it kept its roots in Howard’s pleasant, tonal film writing. It certainly wasn’t avant garde. But it also wandered and strayed, like a lot of concert music, darting from one mood and idea to the next without sticking around for long. It demonstrated why I ultimately prefer film music to concert music. While I appreciate the artistry, creativity, and acrobatic performances found in most concertos and symphonies, concert music so often feels loose and unfocused. It feels random. I know there are themes and development of themes—recapitulations and all that jazz. But there’s usually a spirit of schizophrenia, jumping from one mood or melody line to the next without settling on anything.

By contrast, film music—and we’ll use Howard’s as our standard—usually establishes themes in a more patient, focused way that really sets the idea in stone. I’ve always thought film music was the ideal marriage of the best things classical and pop music have to offer. It’s complex and nuanced, graced with the sophisticated language and scale of classical music and very much continuing in the tradition of western symphonic composition. But it’s also catchy and tightly focused, establishing lyrical ideas in a clear way and repeating and varying them within convenient structures.

I don’t ever want to be guilty of plugging my ears or turning my nose up at music that challenges me, or that doesn’t fit inside a cozy little hook. I love a lot of concert music, from composers hundreds of years ago through Philip Glass and (as of last week) The Echo Society. But out of all forms of music, I love film the most—and imagine I always will. I’ll continue to be excited about composers like Howard being liberated from the confines of a film’s narrative and strict demands…but as a listener, I might honestly prefer those confines.