Off the Shelf…Hollywood in Vienna: The World of James Horner

Horner_Hollwood In ViennaTo anyone even remotely interested in film or film music, James Horner should be more than a household name. With over 130 original compositions for a variety of film and television productions, Horner has put an indelible stamp on the entertainment world and, as a result, pop culture in general. Horner’s work became so essential to the project that he was not merely a consultant to each production, it was the narrative, characters, and editing that needed to keep pace with and adapt to what he’d written. That’s an exaggeration, sure, but to film fans, it sure feels that way.

Arguably the poster child for the profession, John Williams, will be remembered for, among a multitude of other things, reviving orchestral scores and getting innumerable people interested in music. But it is our opinion that James Horner has become the living embodiment of modern film music. From the early eighties right up to his tragic death last year, Horner and his limitless talent made soundtracks and film scores infinitely grander than any visuals projected on screen.

Reviewing a concert is a slightly odd task. For obvious reasons, it is different from film criticism because one must evaluate an experience based on showmanship as opposed to processing the thrill of a story. That said, what makes Horner’s work so vivid and endearing is that his music is a story, above and beyond the events concerning the creatures of Pandora, or a brilliant mathematician struggling with his break from reality, or a down-on-his-luck air show pilot.

This Blu-ray release (of a concert held in Vienna three years ago) is an incredible piece of work – one which fittingly honors the Academy Award-winning composer with brilliant renditions of his numerous hits. At many times during this tribute gala, viewers will be hit with wave upon wave of nostalgia. Personally speaking, hearing Apollo 13 and Willow played live is a great trigger of memories of my younger self watching those films dozens of times on VHS. Sadly however, this retrospective concert (released posthumously) is also a somber reminder that Horner is no longer with us.

Honestly, the most difficult thing about penning a review/opinion piece about the 2013 Hollywood In Vienna event is the urge to fight back tears of happiness and grief. Tougher still is it to see Horner – thoroughly and legitimately overwhelmed with the magnificence of the performance – equally moved hearing the things he’s given to the world handled so elegantly.

Hollywood in Vienna_The World of James Horner concertWhile it would have been unbelievable to attend in person, this concert piece is still an incredible 90 minutes of sweeping music and the Blu-Ray transfer is terrific. It begins with numerous classic Hollywood themes – some of which Horner also had his hand in with a franchise like Star Trek – but more than an hour is devoted specifically to Horner’s masterful works, performed by the hundred plus players of the ORF Vienna Radio-Symphony Orchestra, and conducted by David Newman (of the Newman dynasty).

For more than an hour, we are treated to the likes of Aliens, and The Mask of Zorro, before getting to what is ultimately his most far-reaching composition; the “Titanic Suite” (featuring vocals by soprano Ildikó Raimondi) is the centerpiece of this entire event. While the performance will illicit smiles and callbacks to many fantastic films, this is more than a “greatest hits” concert. At each Hollywood in Vienna concert gala (performed annually since 2009), the “Max Steiner Film Music Achievement Award” is presented by the City of Vienna to one of the world’s most renowned film music composers.

Horner later jokes that it’s nice to go into an event where he knows he’s going to win. But to Horner, the event was equal parts professional adoration and homecoming as he shares a connection with the Vienna University of Music – his father, Harry Horner, studied stage design there. In his own time, Harry was similarly the recipient of as many Academy Awards as his son. Further, the entire trip to Vienna was a very emotional experience for Horner, who had a special tie to the city through his father due to the time he spent there in his youth.

Hollywood in Vienna_The World of James Horner stillClose to the end, Horner is called to the stage. Upon receiving the famed Steiner award, Horner, at a loss for words, keeps his acceptance speech short but his gratitude is immeasurable. Like the camera which captures him nearly a dozen times whilst listening to all of the music, you can tell it is a soulful and honest reaction. This concert however is extra special as the gala was the first time in his career that found Horner, as an audience member, at an orchestral concert of his beloved themes.

While Horner is undoubtedly a king of scoring blockbuster films and period pieces, the finale to this stirring performance comes from a rather underrated title in his resume – the heartwarming animated film (and one of my dear favorites) The Land Before Time.

At times during the gala, certain themes required the talent of an exceptional soloist, pianist, singer, etc. and the rendition of “If We Hold On Together” is no exception. Here it features a powerhouse duet from Deborah Cox and Jeremy Schonfeld. While the film followed infant dinosaurs – who were urged not to lose their way – here the tender Diana Ross tune is given a whole new life by Cox and Schonfeld. A fan of Horner from the age of nine, I don’t think I’ve ever been more enthralled by music he’s created. This was an extraordinary and exceptional event.

Hollywood in Vienna_The World of James Horner_concertAmong the sonic riches throughout the run time, this Blu-Ray offers one priceless special feature: a 75 minute discussion between Robert Townson (of Varèse Sarabande), and Horner. This marks Horner’s first appearance at a film music festival – the International Film Music Symposium – and his visit to the Max Reinhardt Seminar is packed with eye-opening creative insights. The behind the scenes stories to Horner’s most iconic themes makes this a treasured conversation to say the very least.

It’s bittersweet that this release comes out on the week celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Rocketeer (my all-time favorite film and James Horner score), but also the anniversary of his death. James Horner died in a plane crash on June 22, 2015. Horner was truly a one-of-a-kind individual, a genius, and a legend gone far too soon. If film or film music mean anything to you, you owe it to yourself to pick up this incredible concert event. You can also head to the official site for Hollywood In Vienna and find information on past performances and recipients.