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Music Preview: Film composer Bill Conti carries a big stick as Oscars conductor

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

Imagine telling the likes of Al Pacino to shut up, Julia Roberts to can it and Tom Hanks to take a seat. Conductors are used to cutting off their musicians, but Bill Conti has had the tough task -- perhaps a pleasure to some viewers of the Academy Awards -- of ending the acceptance speeches of Hollywood stars.

As conductor of the Academy Awards orchestra, Bill Conti, right, has the task of cutting off stars when they've gone over their time limits. (Joe Buissink)

Pittsburgh Pops

"A Tribute to Henry Mancini"

With: Bill Conti, conductor

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow March 6, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $25.25-$63.25; 412-392-4900.

Conti, 60, who has conducted the Academy Awards orchestra 16 times since 1977, will conduct once again at the 75th anniversary Oscar awards ceremony March 23. However, he has an even stronger connection to movie fans with his compositions. His work "Gotta Fly Now," known as the theme to "Rocky," is still part of the American vernacular a quarter of a century later.

Devoting most of his time to composing, Conti doesn't do much conducting outside of the Oscars except to pay tribute to a friend and musical giant, Henry Mancini. He'll bring a program to the Pittsburgh Pops starting tomorrow that celebrates film music of an older generation and type, centered around the Aliquippa-raised Mancini. His hits such as "Moon River," "Peter Gunn" and "Pink Panther" will be the highlight of a program that also includes "Gotta Fly Now" and music that Conti wrote for TV shows such as "Dynasty" and "Cagney & Lacey."

Question: So you're the guy all the stars hate?

Answer: Everyone thinks that when I get bored with someone's speech, I cut them off. But what they don't know is that there is a director, a producer and network director sitting in the truck outside. I am standing on my podium about 10 feet away from the person that I am going to bludgeon. So who is going to take the blame?

These nominees are warned, you have 45 seconds. After 30 seconds, there is a flashing yellow light. At 45 seconds, there's a red light. Then we are going to cut you off. They all know this, but in the excitement there goes the yellow, there goes the red, then I hear in my head- - phones, "Cut him off!" I am looking at him, he sees me stick the hand up and he hates me and I just begin playing.

Q: What's the deal with you and Julia Roberts? When she won for "Erin Brockovich," she said, "You're so quick with that stick, so why don't you sit because I may never be here again."

A: Julia Roberts thinks I just run the whole show. She is so afraid of getting cut off -- and by the way, little people get cut off, big people don't. Two years ago, a nobody had just won and I cut him off, and Julia was actually sitting three rows behind me and gasped, "Oh, my gosh." She got up and was so mad that she said a couple of things to me from the stage. Keep in mind I don't know her. Last year [when he didn't do the ceremony], she said, "It's a good thing Tom Conti isn't here" or something like that. But every time she has done these things, she's sent me flowers and chocolates and apologized.

Q: How has writing music for films changed from the time you and Henry Mancini wrote your classics?

A: Stylistic change is that kind of relative thing, like, "Oh, my mother liked Frank Sinatra, this guy liked Elvis Presley, this guy grew up with the Beatles, and Eminem is happening now."

Henry Mancini established a certain style in the '50s and '60s that is identifiable. It is a melodic style.

Today, most films require atmospheric stuff. It is being called for by directors, and the musicians bend to what they have to do. If the director feels that sound effects and music are "kind of the same thing," then you are going to get atmospheric score that could be done by a sound designer. I am a melodist, I like to write a tune. Henry Mancini wrote melodies. I can't say it's better, it's just different.

Q: How does this affect the way you run the Oscar show?

A: In every category, there are five nominees. Right from when the televised shows began, they played the song that was identified with the winning movie. The other [four] pieces are also prepared, ready to be played. We struggle in this era to try to make sense with what constitutes a song for when they say, "the winner is..."

Q: For instance, if Jack Nicholson or Kathy Bates wins for "About Schmidt," what do you do? It has a nice score, but there's no way you could pick anything out of it that anyone would remember.

A: But we will [laughing]. We have to, that's the job. If there is no tune, what can you do?

Q: What were Mancini's best qualities as a composer?

A: He had a subtle way of understanding drama. He could put the simple means behind the image and make it go, "oh." It is purely emotional, but also pretty sophisticated stuff. If you hear the beginning of "Moon River," it comes over you -- what a beautiful melody.

Q: Was "Moon River," written early in his career (1961), his best work?

A: His biggest hit. Mancini is not a one-hit guy, but it's just that the first one kicks it all off. "Moon River" isn't the best thing he ever did, [it] was his biggest hit.

Q: Did Mancini feel the pressure of having that big hit?

A: I met him in '76 when "Rocky" became a bit of a hit. He called me and said, "I know what is going to happen to you, and if you have any questions, it happened to me and maybe I could help you out." You talk about a gesture! You are talking about Hollywood, where people kill to get someone else's job.

Q: Did Mancini have a hard time since he came from a smaller town?

A: He was mellow, and everybody liked him. He wasn't a political guy, he wanted to eat and laugh and have a glass of wine.

Q: How did you get involved with Mancini tributes?

A: When Henry died, he had some bookings. Some of those orchestras called me and asked if I would do a tribute. My first reaction was I definitely don't want to, someone might think I was capitalizing on him and I wanted him back, he was a friend. But they persisted and I filled in for his concerts with what I am going to do in Pittsburgh, a memory of him, his tunes and the little accidents that put him in the right place at the right time.

Q: Tell us some background about "Gotta Fly Now."

A: The director, John Avildsen, had a shot of around five miles of Sly [Sylvester Stallone] running around called the "Training Montage." He said, "Why don't you give me about a minute and a half of music so I can cut it?" I had the little tune, it was weepy, because the character was a sad sack kind of guy. Then the director wanted another 30 seconds, then another and we were up to 3 minutes. It became a song by accident. At the end he is jumping up and down, and John said, "Can't we say that he is getting stronger?" ... so we had a lyricist write ["Gotta Fly Now."]

Q: You went to Juilliard and studied with some major figures. Did you ever consider writing symphonies and the like?

A: I wanted to be like a baroque composer. Those guys wrote music and got paid. There are only a handful of people that can write [from grant to grant]. I wanted to be rich. I didn't want the first performance [to be] the last. I respect serious composers; I am seriously a film composer. The only dignity I get out of this is that I write music, I am paid and it is heard.

Q: What do you do for fun, go to the movies?

A: I go to the L.A. Philharmonic symphony every Thursday. I go to every opera that's ever been here. I don't actually attend movies. It is not my form of entertainment.

Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.

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