Tuesday, November 3, 2009

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

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