The Music of Downton Abbey

By Brian McCreath   |   Thursday, January 5, 2012
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Downton Abbey, from WGBH’s Masterpiece Classic, won the 2012 Emmy Award for Original Dramatic Score for a Series. Classical New England talks with John Lunn, the composer of the winning score.

Highclere Castle, the setting of Downton Abbey
(image by Mike Searle, via Wikimedia;  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

When you think of Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey, the first thing that comes to mind might be Highclere Castle, which “plays” Downton Abbey itself. Or maybe the mind-boggling “proper-ness” of practically every single character depicted.

One especially powerful aspect of Downton you may not have noticed – at least consciously – was the music you heard.

In a way, that’s as it should be. The score was written by John Lunn and accomplishes precisely what any film score must: a ratcheting up of the emotional trajectory of the story while simultaneously going unnoticed.

You might imagine Lunn as a wizard-like composer in a meticulous process, weaving together strands of silvery sound to form a gorgeous tapestry. But as he told me, that’s not exactly how the process started:

To hear more about Downton Abbey from actress Elizabeth McGovern, visit The World.

Here's a look back at Season 2:

Watch Downton Abbey I Wonder Preview on PBS. See more from Masterpiece.


Father And Son Martin Sheen And Emilio Estevez On The Way

By Jared Bowen   |   Monday, October 10, 2011
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Oct. 10, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 6 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — El Camino de Santiago is a path for pilgrims which stretches more than 500 miles from France to Spain. It's arduous and emotional especially as depicted in the new film The Way which receives a very intimate treatment via a collaboration between father and son Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. "I've gotten to a place where yes, I am concentrating on things that are personal and excite me," Estevez said. He wrote, directed and appears in the film playing Daniel, the son to Sheen's cantankerous Tom.

A day into Daniel's trek on the Camino he's killed in a freak accident and when Tom arrives to retrieve the body, he decides to finish the journey for his son. The heavy subject matter did not deter Sheen. "Like any artist you go to that place where you store those sense memories and you conjure them up when the opportunity is appropriate," Sheen said referring to playing a mourning father as his real-life son stood on-set nearby.

Long before their first footfalls on The Way, Sheen helped his son chart the story. "I live pretty close to my folks about 200 yards down the street so there was no escaping [Sheen] while we were working on the script," Estevez said. "I'm like, 'oh my God he's got another idea,' I just got out of the shower." Screenplay in hand, The Way was filmed in sequence — following Tom's trek as he's joined by a sweet Dutchman, a jaded Canadian woman and a dejected Irishman.

A lot of real-life El Camino de Santiago pilgrims also became part of filming. "That gives it an added reality," Sheen explained. "Emilio is very careful not to get into anyone's way because that's a very sacred time for a lot of people, a lot of people in mourning. A lot of people are carrying a lot of serious burdens and they're looking for healing and they're looking for alone time to have a chance to reflect."

The Way is a film that follows disparate journeys, ones accented with humor and sadness, but dominated by Sheen's march forward. And for that reason it may draw comparisons to Sheen's other recent high-profile father-son relationship with the troubled Charlie Sheen.

"We're a family and we are supportive of each other no matter what," Sheen said. "We pull for each other, we pray for each other, we lift each other up and particularly when it's most necessary." After a legendary Hollywood career, Martin Sheen has found the way on-screen and off.

50/50 Injects Cancer With Comedy

By Jared Bowen   |   Saturday, October 1, 2011
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Oct. 2, 2011


Watch the segment that aired on September 28 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

BOSTON — There have been any number of movies about cancer over the years, yet few have dealt with young people having it. But that's the case in 50/50. The movie was born out of writer Will Reiser's own diagnosis. Actor Seth Rogen says his friend, writer Will Reiser, was the worst person to get cancer.

Seth Rogan: "He was very sensitive and very neurotic. And somewhat of a hypochondriac."

Will Reiser: "Although it turns out I had cancer!"

Rogan: "Turns out you had cancer, so maybe you weren't a hypochondriac."

Reiser: "I would say, for like eight months, I would talk about how I was so tired."

Rogan: "We thought you had mono."

Reiser: "I would go to the doctor and there would be nothing wrong."

Rogan: "It did just seem ironic, honestly, that the one friend we had that was so neurotic — but he was probably neurotic because he had cancer. "

It's this wit that spawned 50/50 — a comedy loosely based on Reiser's own cancer diagnosis. It was when both men were working behind the scenes in Hollywood six years ago that doctors discovered a giant, malignant tumor along Reiser's spine. He wrote 50/50 two years later.

"When I was going through it I was at an age where I did not know how to talk about, express myself on an emotional level, and talk about what I was feeling and what I was going through and how difficult it was. I think for me writing the movie really helped, it was very cathartic in allowing me to get the full memories out," Reiser recalled.

Then, as now, he dealt with it with humor. 50/50 stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Adam, a young, neurotic twentysomething stricken with cancer. Seth Rogen, who also co-produced the film, plays close friend Kyle, just as he did in real life.

"Looking back, it was crazy what some people did to him. It was insane! It almost seemed like some people treated him much worse than they would have had he not been sick. It was too much for them to deal with so they lashed out," Rogan said.

But being twentysomethings, the pair also managed to use Reiser's diagnosis for some — to put it kindly — social leverage.

"It wasn't like we were going out trying to meet women. Seth's fiancé and he met while I was sick and that only helped him look more sympathetic. And I introduced them which also helped. Cancer brought you together," Reiser said.

"Exactly, it's true. It's like this guy has cancer and he's still trying to hook up his friend? He must be a great guy," Rogan said. "We got into Batman Begins for free right after surgery."

In real life though, as in the film, Reiser's battle with cancer was arduous especially for his parents.

"It was really emotional for my mom, she was crying on set. But also I think it was cathartic for her as well. I didn't get to tell her in person. I had to tell her over the phone, I was in Los Angeles, she was in New York. Her first instinct was to get on a plane and move straight to LA, which she did, and I had to put her on a plane back to New York. She was driving me crazy," Resier said.

Like Terms of Endearment, consider this an exceptional entry into the uncomfortable cancer canon.

Moneyball Review And Interview With Jonah Hill

By Jared Bowen   |   Friday, September 23, 2011
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Sept. 23, 2011

BOSTON — As he and his sad sack team limped into the 2002 baseball season, Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane was desperate for a new winning strategy. In Moneyball, a film adaptation of Michael Lewis's 2003 book of the same name, Beane (played by Brad Pitt) realizes baseball has become a game of Moneyball.

Given that the A's have little money compared to the major market teams, his new Assistant GM Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) devises a system of Sabermetrics — assembling a team by statistics, not salaries. "I see it as a movie about challenging the system and being undervalued and being an underdog and thinking differently," Hill explained during a recent stop in Boston. "That's the element I related to the most."

Promotional poster for Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt. (via Greater Boston)

Hill's character, a Yale-educated economist, is actually an amalgamation of several number-crunching baseball brainiacs not unlike Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, whom Hill met in prepping for the film. "[The GMs Hill met with] felt the system was archaic and things hadn't changed in 150 years and maybe it was time to try something different," Hill said.

It worked for the A's who wound up pulling off a 20-game winning streak that season, an American League record. "I just looked at it as Billy was the bazooka and Peter was the ammunition," Hill said. "Billy acts on raw emotion and Peter's the most logical person in the entire world so together we form one perfect person to start something new, like Frankenstein."

The 27-year-old Hill has established himself over the last seven years in a string of comedies. Moneyball is his first drama. "I happen to have done a lot of comedic movies, but I love dramas and doing this…having this be the first kind of big drama that people will see me in with Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman is a dream-like surreal experience," said Hill.

The newly slimmed down actor stars in the film alongside a legion of legends from well-known character actors to Pitt — the icon whose stardom looms large. "After the first couple of rehearsals I was like, I need to get over that because I need to focus on just killing it in this part because these guys trusted me, they gave me an opportunity to do something different and I'm not going to let them down," Hill explained. And he doesn't — helping to transform what could have been a cumbersome story about numbers and sports clichés into one of the most engaging films of the year.

Actor Wes Studi

Wednesday, May 4, 2011
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Popcorn With That Beethoven?

By Brian McCreath   |   Monday, January 10, 2011
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Jan. 10

A few years ago, the Metropolitan Opera pioneered one of those “wish-I’d-though-of-that” ideas by sending out live performances of opera to hundreds of movie theaters around the world, and within a year, many other opera companies had followed along, to varying degrees of success. As a way to reinvigorate its audience, it makes lots of sense for opera, especially on the scale produced by the Met, with lavish production values and access to practically any combination of cast and singers it wants. And it doesn’t seem to have hurt the company’s box office; in fact, it may have had just the opposite effect.

But would the same success come to an orchestra broadcasting itself to movie theaters? Orchestras aren’t known for staging particularly interesting events from a visual perspective, no matter how attractive concert halls are architecturally. But maybe the right combination of orchestra and repertoire could inject a new perspective to the orchestra experience. I was curious, so I found myself on Sunday at the Showcase Cinema de Lux Legacy Place in Dedham, Massachusetts, for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s first movie theater broadcast, with Gustavo Dudamel, now in his second year as music director of the orchestra, conducting a program that included Slonimsky’s Earbox by John Adams, Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 1, “Jeremiah,” and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. This being LA, glam hosting, complete with sometimes pleasant, sometimes annoying, and occasionally enlightening banter, was provided by Vanessa Williams.

To begin with, the orchestra sounded terrific. LA has built a stellar reputation over the last 15 or so years, with credit usually given to the previous music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. They can clearly take on whatever technical challenges might be thrown at them and not just navigate those challenges, but do so with excitement, precision, panache, and verve. And Dudamel (“The Dude”) was at his best: razor sharp, electric, and expressive. And all with that crowd-pleasing mop of hair on his head.

[Sidebar: If you didn’t know this already, Dudamel is really quite the story in the music world, as made abundantly clear in a recent program by Tavis Smiley. For the record, I don’t have a particularly strong opinion of him yet, but to the degree that he brings people to classical music who might not otherwise find themselves interested, he’s great. And his story, as dovetailed with that of Venezuela, really is compelling. His status as a great conductor is a true case of “time will tell,” but in the meantime, he’s someone with whom, I believe, anyone who cares about classical music should be familiar.]

I left the theater, though, with the feeling that this was the trial run of a concept that really hasn’t found its direction yet. Sure, it was fun to get extreme closeups of players as they un-self-consciously pulled off amazing feats of musical prowess (really, incredible things happen every week in orchestras across the country), and I guess I can consider myself lucky to have “been there” as The Dude slipped on his tails and walked down the hallway from his dressing room to the stage door.

But while Disney Hall (designed by Frank Gehry), with its cattywampus organ pipes and sweeping curves, is visually arresting, the experience was still that of an orchestra concert, which is to say, several dozen instrumentalists arrayed in a semi-circle playing music for an audience of people in seats while wearing … black. After the first half hour, it really didn’t add up to much, even after we got a few more shots at intermission of Vanessa Williams in a bright purple strapless number.

The major shortcoming was sound. Even with the most advanced surround sound system, with impressively delineated spatial qualities, it simply cannot equal the experience of sitting in a great concert hall, hearing and feeling a great orchestra. And as much as I love thinking about and playing with new ways to transmit the musical experience through evolving media, I’m actually heartened at this. I love the idea that live concerts of orchestra music, which have been going on for centuries, are still irreplaceable and essential.

None of which means I’m not rooting for the LA Phil and any other orchestra in contributing to that evolution. I hope they and others succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Here are a few ideas that, humbly, I think would contribute to that success:

1. Ditch the black. There’s no really great reason to stick with black tails/white bow tie/long black gown dress code in general, but there’s REALLY no reason to continue that practice when playing for people who came to the multiplex dressed in jeans and sneakers and who are probably enjoying popcorn while watching. I remember seeing The English Concert at Jordan Hall several years ago, and just by having the women wear a variety of coordinated single-color blouses (red, blue, orange, etc.), the experience was radically different.

2. Think through the host a bit more. I bet Vanessa Williams is a terrific person, and she might even be a big supporter of her local orchestra. But her presence didn’t really get beyond the Matt-Lauer-at-the-Macy’s-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade level. It needn’t be a musicologist, or even a music geek, but just someone who can offer a bit more depth.

3. Content, content, content. I thoroughly enjoyed all three pieces on the program, but I also wondered why I was hearing them. With the absence of the full orchestral sonic experience (as mentioned above), a greater premium is placed on why the audience should want to experience the event. Coherent, thematic programs that illuminate ideas beyond any individual part of the program, an approach that’s been gaining ground in general over the last decade and a half in orchestral programming, should be exploited to the max for the multiplex crowd. One potential model, or at least starting point, is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Beyond the Score series .

4. Make the experience last. A couple of months ago, I tried out the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, which is a webcast experience. Aside from being a much more polished presentation (which, to be fair, no doubt is due to the fact that Berlin has been doing this for two years now), my admission ticket included access for a limited time to the entire archive of previous concerts, including the one I saw and heard live. What if, as a ticket holder to the LA Phil’s theater broadcast, I had the chance to see and hear it again, along with other concerts, on the web or on my phone?

I’m interested to know if you’ve attended any of these kinds of events, either in movie theaters wtih the Met, the LA Phil, or another organization, or via internet, like Berlin. Could something along these lines work in Boston?  And for more reaction from around the country, visit NPR Music.

About the Authors
Brian McCreath Brian McCreath

Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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