Rachel Portman

Rachel Portman

Yesterday I interviewed one of my longtime favorite composers, Rachel Portman. She was the first woman to win an Oscar for best score (for Emma in 1996), and is probably best known for her scores to Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, and The Legend of Bagger Vance.

Ms. Portman’s style is distinctive; her bailiwick is the sweet string and wind writing with which she has supplied so many light romances. She is an old-fashioned composer in that she still literally “writes” her music with good old pencil and paper, and her classical education manifests itself in her simple and organic orchestration. She’s a marvelous melodist, and admits that most filmmakers pursue her talents because they want something of a traditional melody (a rarity these days).

“Melodies are hard to write,” she told me, “but they’re so worth writing…They have a strange way of working with film that I find intriguing.”

She sounded very much like Emma Thompson on the phone (probably a dumb American assessment), and came across humble and gentle—much like her music. She seemed genuinely touched that I was such a fan of her oeuvre, and reacted with surprised delight when I praised her relatively unknown score for The Storyteller. (She provided this 1988 Jim Henson-helmed television miniseries with some wonderfully thematic fantasy music, and it will hopefully see a CD release later this year.)

It could be said that much of Ms. Portman’s music sounds alike, that the elegant melodies and plucky promenades from her various films could be substituted for one another without notice. And there is probably some truth to the claim. She has a recognizable “brand,” and several of her scores are taken from the same proverbial page.

But what Ms. Portman does, she does extremely well. Few composers can conjure the kind of breezy, dreamy melodies with such (seemingly) effortless grace. Her orchestration is always so pure, honoring the traditional symphonic instruments and their simple inherent power.

Further, it would be unfair to corral all of Ms. Portman’s music under one broad “light romance” heading. She has addressed darker subject matter in her career, such as in the slavery-themed Beloved and Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist, as well as the Anthony Hopkins drama The Human Stain. These films also evoked Ms. Portman’s melodic sensibilities, but with a darker and more tragic hue; the results have been rich.

Her latest score is for the film adaptation of the acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go. You will still find some of her familiar pluck and bounce, but the score is marked by a tragic solo cello melody with harmonic accompaniment “suspended above it.” The sadness of the story is supplemented by Ms. Portman’s sensitively devastating music, and we are gifted with another exquisite entry into her dark and dramatic hall of fame.

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