Thursday, November 26, 2009

MGM Musical: ATHENA

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MGM Musical Score:ATHENA: Songs: Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane, Underscoring: Georgie Stoll, Robert Van Epps, Andre Previn, Jacob Gade Arrangements/Orchestrations:  Georgie Stoll, Robert Van Epps Al Sendrey, Conrad Salinger, Wally Heglin
Rhino Handmade RHM 27768,  33 tracks (stereo) 
Producer: George Feltenstein, Performed: MGM Soloists, Studio Orchestra & Chorus, Conductor: Georgie Stoll

Verdict: Heavenly  

by Ross Care

    Athena, a 1954 musical about an eccentric  family of California health enthusiasts, is primarily distinguished by its score of songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. The song writing team first gained fame with their collegiate Broadway musical, Best Foot Forward. They were soon signed by MGM who produced the film version of Best Foot, and where they contributed several original songs to the eclectic score of one of the studio’s biggest hits of the mid-1940s, Meet Me In St. Louis. After St. Louis the team went their various ways but reunited to produce Athena, their most extensive score.

Hyped as “The musical with young ideas,” Athena showcases the talents of MGM’s young ‘50s stars, Jane Powell, crooner Vic Damone, Debbie Reynolds, and Edmund Purdom, the latter a new British leading man best (or worst known) for lip-synching the voice of Mario Lanza in MGM’s nonetheless touching CinemaScope remake of The Student Prince.   

Athena itself is a modestly entertaining affair with a witty, satiric screenplay shot in classic ‘50s Technicolor  with an appealing cast. The score itself was first released  in a truncated version on Mercury,  (Damone’s home label), the soon-out-of-print 10-inch LP becoming a sought after collector’s  item. The 2001 Rhino Handmade release is the first complete release of this appealing score and with 33 tracks (including songs, outtakes, demos, and underscoring) the CD is one of Rhino’s most elaborate productions.

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The score opens with a lyrical main title for chorus and orchestra, the ethereal melody of which is beautifully developed in ensuing underscore cues. The songs range from energetic up-tempo numbers, the operetta-like  waltz, “Vocalize,” and the jazzy duet, “Imagine,” to one of the most under-rated  ballads in the vast MGM catalog, the haunting “Love Can Change the Stars,” sung by Powell. Damone performs another moody ballad, “Venezia,” and the film’s opening, “The Girl Next Door,” a slight variation on the durable standard from Meet Me In St. Louis.

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Damone also handles an outtake, “Faster Than Sound,” an elaborate  up-tempo tune cut from the film but which ended up in Martin’s  High Spirits, the Broadway musical based on Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit.

Other bonus tracks include seven demos sung by Blane with Martin at the piano, a virtual mini-album that demonstrates the team’s considerable performing talents. (Visually the team can also be seen performing a “soundie” on the recent 2-disc DVD of Meet Me In St. Louis).

Though Athena was not shot in CinemaScope the score was nonetheless recorded in authentic stereo, the sound brilliantly showcasing the jazz soloists in numbers like “Imagine” and the lush MGM orchestral sound in the rest of the songs and underscore.

Athena is one of Rhino Handmade’s finest releases and provides a welcome and complete restoration of one of the most appealing and under-rated  classic MGM musical scores.

Bravo!                   

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hugo FRIEDHOFER: BOY ON A DOLPHIN

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Intrada Special Collection, Volume 78, released 2008. TT: 54.18, 19 tracks (stereo) Producers: Nick Redman & Douglass Fake; Performed: 20th Century-Fox Studio Orchestra and Chorus, Conductor: Lionel Newman; Orchestrations: Edward Powell

Verdict: Mediterranean magic!

by Ross Care

BOY ON A DOLPHIN (1957) is one of those great 20th Century-Fox “dramalogues” of the 1950s, i.e., escapist narrative films emphasizing international locations lushly shot in Fox’s new wide screen/stereophonic sound process, CinemaScope. DOLPHIN showcases Greece and deals with the search for a priceless antiquity, the shipwrecked golden statue of the title that is accidentally discovered by Phaedra, a buxom Greek sponge diver (Sophia Loren), in the waters around the island of Hydra. A dedicated archeologist (Alan Ladd) and an illegal collector (Clifton Webb) both vie for the statue and who gets it provides the intrigue in director Jean Negulesco’s entertaining and strikingly photographed film.

Hugo Friedhofer’s score is a fusion of a title song, exotic folk influences, and the composer’s own brand of gorgeous orchestral impressionism. In his notes to the original (mono only) Decca LP Friedhofer comments: “Southern Europe, and particularly the Mediterranean area, is hardly an arctic wilderness. If I have been as successful with the delineation of the aural image, as (cinematographer Milton Krasner) has been with the visual, anyone so inclined can call it ‘’lush,’ if they want to. As a matter of fact I hope they will.”

And lush it is, in the best sense of the word. The film opens with a brief visual/musical tour of the Greek islands underscored solely with a droning folk-like cue that emphasizes a huge woodwind section. The ensuing credits feature an intimate title song (later also heard in a kicky “lounge” version: “The CafĂ©”). Though not mentioned in the liner notes, according to the film’s credits this is based on a Greek song, "Tinafto," with music by Takis Morakis and Greek words by J. Fermanoglou. (Roughly translated the title means “what is this they call love?”) Friedhofer is credited with adapting the music and Paul Francis Webster with providing new lyrics. (Strangely enough, the film version was also recorded by Tony Perkins on one of his RCA LPs during his brief 1950s stint as a pop vocalist).

Whatever its origins the melody is a haunting one and is freely developed in the underscoring. At the conclusion of the credits (track 1) Friedhofer’s brief vacillating “sea” motif is first heard as Loren rises from the watery depths to emerge (like an earthy Venus) with one of the most striking wet looks prior to Jacqueline Bisset in THE DEEP! For the mainland sequences there is a recurring theme in 7/8, a distinctive Greek/Bulgarian folk meter also used by Bartok (“Instructions”), and other ethnic-derived cues (“Street Music”). The “Acropolis” and Meteora monastery (“On The Road”) episodes feature two of the most epic cues, the latter with an orchestral build of almost Bond-ian brass.

But Friedhofer’s most charismatic cues are for the several underwater sequences, liquid symphonic impressionism embellished with rippling harps and woodwinds and a seductive siren-song vocalise. (“Phaedra Finds the Boy” with its beautiful coda-conclusion, the 6.20 “Nocturnal Sea”).  As rendered by the superb 20th Century-Fox orchestra under Lionel Newman (in beautifully spacious stereo) and overlaid with the ethereally pure soprano of Marni Nixon these are simply some of the most magical cues ever created for a mainstream Hollywood film of any era.

Booklet includes lively, informative notes by Julie Kirgo and (as noted) a reprint of Friedhofer’s original LP comments.

Elmer BERNSTEIN: SUMMER and SMOKE


Orchestrations: Leo Shuken, Jack Hayes – BMG reissue of RCA VICTOR LP, 12 tracks (stereo) Producer: Dick Peirce, Performed: Paramount Studio Orchestra , Conductor: Elmer Bernstein

 Verdict: Sensitive, sensual Bernstein

by Ross Care

As a film composer the prolific Elmer Bernstein went through more “periods” than Picasso. He may be best known for his jazz and western scores, so it’s sometimes overlooked that during the 1950s and ‘60s Bernstein scored some of the most prestigious  projects in Hollywood.

Among these were scores for a number of literary and Broadway adaptations, including the 1961 film of Tennessee Williams’ Broadway drama, SUMMER AND SMOKE. The American playwright’s works inspired a number of film scores during this era, notably Alex North’s landmark  A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE in 1951.

While in a different musical mode Bernstein’s SUMMER AND SMOKE emphatically ranks with North’s STREETCAR  as a definitive musical evocation of the unique Williams mythos. SUMMER is Williams’ only period play, set in a small delta town in (circa) WWI era Mississippi, and deals with the conflicted relationship between Alma, a repressed minister’s daughter, and Johnny, the bad boy next door. Thus Bernstein is dealing with both the period background and the sacred/profane conflict that is the core of script and screenplay.

The period (and emotional) setting precludes the use of jazz techniques, resulting in (aside from solo guitar interludes) a purely orchestral mode, primarily for strings, varied woodwinds, and harp. The period mode does not, however, limit Bernstein, and the modern sensibility of the play is suggested  in the score’s sometimes Bartokian embellishments (“Summer Thoughts”), and the quirky treatment of traditional waltz rhythms. (“Two Lonely Women,” “Alma’s Dilemma”)

The spiritual/sensual dichotomy is immediately announced (as in Bernstein’s DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS) in the Main Title’s severe chordal introduction to the swirlingly romantic main theme, the latter also providing material for much of the score.  On a broader scale the same idea is contrasted by the Alma/John orchestral cues vs. the subtly erotic guitar tracks for John’s dalliance with a seductive Latina (“Rosa,” “Rosa’s Dance”).

The 1999 BMG release is an exact  reissue of the original  RCA Victor LP. It features much, though not all of the music in the film, but is a beautifully recorded Living Stereo representation of the score as a whole. (One of the most attractive cues is a full version of the lilting, yet bittersweet “Glorious Hill Waltz” which is only heard as background source music in the film).

The subtle delicacy and detail of the orchestrations were made for CD, though my copy is plagued by an annoying hum on some of the quieter passages.

In the original LP notes Bernstein himself describes his score: “… we hear the music of loneliness, the sounds of our secret thoughts, whispers of our hidden desires and unspoken hopes, in a musical mystique suggesting at times foreverness and eternity.”

I personally consider this Bernstein’s masterpiece, and the film, directed by Peter Glenville who directed the London stage production, is certainly one of the composer's best.

Ross Care