When people tell Richard Kaufman they want to be a film composer, he wants to know their favorite film score. Then he wants to know their favorite film score from the 1930s and 1940s, “the era of the greatest film composers who ever lived.”
Kaufman said the early years of film scoring was an era of the greats. Understanding where film scores come from and what they can do is vital for anyone hoping to write their own score.
Kaufman will conduct the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in “A Night on the Red Carpet” at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater.
Attendees shouldn’t worry: There won’t be a quiz on composers or films. Instead, Kaufman said he hopes the audience — and the musicians — will enjoy the well-known themes from “Casablanca,” “Gone With the Wind” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” among others.
“This program is meant to represent the artistry of a number of Hollywood’s greatest composers,” Kaufman said.
Film music is special for Kaufman because it can help tell any story. He quoted composer Elmer Bernstein — who wrote the music for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Magnificent Seven,” both featured in tonight’s program — as saying that a film composer must also be a great dramatist.
“When you hear a film score, it’s no different than hearing music from a ballet or an opera — it’s programmatic and it helps tell a story,” Kaufman said. “Film scores help support the emotion and action of the film just as ballet music does. I believe that music is music. Film music can be extraordinarily challenging to play — as challenging, if not more challenging than some classical music.”
Kaufman has worked on film scores from several different angles. He worked in the music department of MGM for 18 years, first as a music coordinator and then as a music supervisor. He said his most memorable experience of that job was arriving for his first day of work.
“When I walked onto the lot, I felt like I was surrounded by the entire history of Hollywood,” Kaufman said.
Before joining MGM, Kaufman spent eight years playing violin on numerous film scores. Among his favorite scores to play were five composed by John Williams, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Jaws.”
Now conducting is his full-time job. This year marks his ninth season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for which he conducts a series featuring classical and contemporary film music. It is also his 23rd season as principal pops conductor for the Pacific Symphony, and he holds the title of pops conductor laureate of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
“My life is now standing on a box and waving my arms,” Kaufman said with a smile.
Last season, Kaufman conducted the CSO for the first time. He was especially impressed by the technical skills of the musicians and their ability to play the notes with every emotion called for in the music.
“I was absolutely thrilled at having the opportunity to work with such an extraordinary group of musicians,” Kaufman said, “and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with them again this summer.”