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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Classical Music Goes to the Movies...Again

(or..."Hey, isn't that Sibelius?")

Classical music has been a big part of film ever since the early days of silent movies played to piano accompaniment. But works by the great masters show up in some pretty unexpected places. Here's a quick look at some (less than) famous appearances of the great composers' works in Hollywood.
On the run, with a cello. James Bond (Timothy Dalton)
and Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo) in The Living Daylights. 
© 1987 EON Productions/MGM-United Artists/Danjaq S.A.
The Living Daylights (1987)
Timothy Dalton's first Bond film was John Barry's las, and the late great British soundtrack composer loaded it with classical music. There's excerpts from Act II of Le Nozze di Figaro, the andante from Borodin's String Quartet No. 2, and the finale of Dvorak's Cello Concerto. Small wonder: the "Bond girl" in Daylights is a Czech cellist played by Maryam D'Abo.

The movie's most memorable music-related image: Dalton and D'Abo escaping into Austria...riding on a speeding cello case.

Die Hard 2 (1990)
Michael Kamen's score for the first Die Hard movie made extensive use of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to accompany its tale of a lone-wolf cop (Bruce Willis) trapped by terrorists in an L.A. skyscraper. The sequel (yes it's also known as "Die Harder") was directed by Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin.
"Whaddya mean there's no Beethoven in this one?" Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.
© 1990 20th Century Fox/Silver Pictures
Like the first, Die Harder is set at Christmas. Our hero is at Dulles Airport, during a snow storm, when it gets taken over by (you guessed it) terrorists. Inspired by the winter setting (and possibly the Finnish director) Kamen chose to make Finlandia, the nine-minute tone poem by Jean Sibelius, the heart of the soundtrack. The ominous opening chords accompany the terrorist takeover, while the triumphant final march section bursts forth as Bruce Willis (once again) saves the day.

Anaconda (1997)
Verdi's least popular, least-performed opera, Alzira, is set in South America. But that didn't stop the makers of Anaconda from using the opera composer's music in their film about hapless explorers and one very big, very hungry computer-generated snake.

As their boat chugs up the river, one of the characters blasts ""Dio Che Nell'alma Infondere", the friendship duet that comes early in Don Carlo. It's the Metropolitan Opera recording with Michael Sylvester as the Don and Vladimir Chernov as the Marquis de Posa. The giant snake doesn't attack during this scene. Guess it liked opera.

The fountain scene from Ocean's 11. © 2001 Warner Brothers Pictures.
Ocean's 11 (2001)
This star-studded remake of the classic Vegas heist flick makes extensive use of Debussy's Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamesque. It first appears on the soundtrack in a modified electronic version when Tess Ocean (Julia Roberts) makes her entrance, and represents her character throughout the movie.

Later, you hear Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in the orchestral version of the piece, as the gang celebrates a successful triple casino robbery by standing and contemplating the fountains in front of the Bellagio. If this seems familiar it is: director Steven Soderbergh included the scene as an homage to the ending of The Right Stuff.

Vin Diesel's hyperkinetic take on spy movies and extreme sports culture features live performances by German metal band Rammstein and the British electronica duo Orbital. But when he's brought in for a briefing with the "M"-like Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) you hear...Mozart?
"Oh you've gotta be kidding me." Vin Diesel as Xander Cage (Agent XXX) in xXx.
Frame capture from xXx, © 2002 Revolution Studios.
Gibbons conducts his briefing in a Prague opera house, where he's enjoying a dress rehearsal of Don Giovanni. (Never mind that these two guys are talking through the first act.) Vin's response to this cultural exposure? The famous "Oh, you've gotta be kidding me."
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.