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Oscar-Nominated Composers Embrace Their Rare Moment on Stage


It’s not often that a composer is asked to provide musical accompaniment to a woman having sex with a fish monster. 

It’s almost as rare that a composer is asked to conduct a big-city symphony in a performance of his movie score the same week he’s expected to win an Oscar for it.

Alexandre Desplat, whose music gave voice to the emotions of the mute couple at the center of “The Shape of Water,” embraced both tasks. 

He was one of five Academy Award nominees whose scores the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed Wednesday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a show designed to give usually secluded composers a rare moment in the spotlight. It was just the second such concert in the history of the academy, which celebrates its 90th anniversary with Sunday’s Oscar ceremony.

“It’s a fantastic moment for a composer to be able to come out of your studio and share the emotion,” Desplat, 56, told The Associated Press shortly before taking the stage. “It’s a great reward, especially here, with this orchestra.”

Guillermo Del Toro, who directed the film, was in attendance Wednesday night and spoke briefly to introduce Desplat to the crowd.

When Del Toro presented him with the amphibious and very adult love story, Desplat said his thought was: “Give me more sex scenes.”

And he knew what approach he wanted to take: as pure, sweeping and romantic as he would give to any passionate relationship. 

“I haven’t scored that many love stories,” Desplat said. “It’s one of my rare opportunities. There are not so many movies that are love stories anymore.”

He set aside the conductor’s baton and used only his hands to lead the orchestra in a transfixing performance of his score, a classic movie-romance with an occasional accordion that evoked his native Paris, and just the slightest nod to the movie’s supernatural themes.

While he has spent his entire career in movies, and won an Oscar for 2014’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” he has also occasionally led an orchestra in concert.

Carter Burwell hasn’t.

The composer for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” has had a storied three-decade career in movie music, but had never before taken the concert stage to conduct.

“Oh it’s completely new,” said Burwell, showing no sign of nerves before the show.

He was resplendent in a tux and slightly oversized white tie when he led the orchestra in his spaghetti-western-style soundtrack to “Three Billboards,” giving no indication that he was a rookie. 

Jonny Greenwood, the Radiohead guitarist and keyboardist who scored “Phantom Thread,” was the lone no-show nominee, though his work was played in his absence.

The night had a rock star anyway in 86-year-old John Williams, who was welcomed with whoops and cheers more common in arenas than concert halls.

Williams’ Oscar nomination for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is his 51st.

Williams was introduced by Rian Johnson, the “Last Jedi” director who said it’s impossible to present Williams to an audience without sounding “too grandiose, like I’m dedicating a national park.”

On this night, however, Williams focused only on material that was new and unique to “Last Jedi,” and stayed away from the soul-stirring “Star Wars” melodies.

The last of the composers, Hans Zimmer, wasn’t happy Wednesday night. The 11-time nominee was certainly glad the Academy was giving added attention to composers. But he really wished they hadn’t done it in a year when his entry, the score for “Dunkirk,” was designed to make an audience feel edgy and claustrophobic, instead of, say, 1995, when he won an Oscar for his crowd-pleasing work on “The Lion King.”

“Why couldn’t it have been any other year?” he moaned, with a bit of a laugh behind his agony.

And when he heard the order of performers, it got even worse.

“They made us go alphabetically,” Zimmer said. “I think there’s something completely and utterly wrong about me following John Williams.”