Post image for Music Review: PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION: THE PAINTINGS OF BOB PEAK (Walt Disney Concert Hall)

by Nick McCall on June 30, 2024

in Theater-Los Angeles


On Friday, June 14, music producer Robert Townson fulfilled a 25-year dream, premiering in partnership with Abu Dhabi Festival a new symphony, Pictures at an Exhibition: The Paintings of Bob Peak, at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Film Orchestra and conductor Leonard Slatkin. It was a sprawling evening put together to honor the work of commercial illustrator Robert (Bob) Peak (1927-92), America’s most prolific creator of movie posters. Active 1959-91, if there’s a great movie you like from that era, chances are, he painted it.

Robert Townson

The first half of the evening, a salute to great film scores, was devoted to Peak’s movie career, starting with a fast and breezy performance of Leonard Bernstein’s overture to West Side Story. While the music was going, Bob Peak’s work was projected on a screen above the orchestra. Alas, the left side was out of focus and the frame rate was jerky. There were montages that went about how you’d expect them to: Peak’s variations of his posters played along with the corresponding movie music, such as viewing West Side Story art while listening to its overture.

Leonard Slatkin and the Los Angeles Film Orchestra

Next was Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” used in Apocalypse Now (1979), but restrained and underpowered. Two Lerner and Loewe overtures followed: My Fair Lady (with a drum set?) and Camelot. Hidden from view behind the screen, Joanne Pearce Martin, principal keyboardist at the LA Phil, played J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor on the organ for Rollerball (1975), followed by “The Enterprise” from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) — the final bars including the organ — and themes from Goldsmith’s Silverado (1985).

Joanne Pearce Martin

As the evening progressed in this first half, the camera movement and editing got faster and flashier, to the point where it was hard to see the art or concentrate on the music. With Superman, the video started with its poster, but then showed Funny Girl (1968), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and other non-Superman movies. It was very confusing and took the wind out of John Williams’ main title to Superman: The Movie (1978), which rounded out the first half.

Leonard Slatkin conducts the Los Angeles Film Orchestra

Much of the music so far felt incredibly exciting, but a bit underplayed, lacking much of the bombast we’ve come to expect of these, especially in Disney Hall’s live acoustic. Perhaps Slotkin was conducting at a studio level versus a live hall: Two days earlier, Slatkin recorded the new work for the second half, Pictures At An Exhibition: The Paintings of Bob Peak, at the Newman Scoring Stage on the Fox lot (it will be released later this year).

Robert Thies

And Pictures at an Exhibition was the main draw of the night, a new suite in ten movements by ten composers, mostly from Hollywood, inspired by the art of Bob Peak. Unlike the first half of the concert, this piece focused on Peak’s non-movie art. Townson was open about taking inspiration from Modest Mussorgsky’s own Pictures at an Exhibition (which was inspired the work of architect and painter Viktor Hartmann) and had Robert Thies play the original solo piano version of that work’s “Promenade No. 1.” Without pausing, Slatkin then began the new Pictures, which started with “Rhapsody for a Golden Age: 1937 Academy Players Directory” by Maria Newman, the daughter of Alfred Newman, who composed over 200 film scores for 20th Century Fox (he also wrote the fanfare which accompanies the studio logo at the beginning of its pictures). Chugging along like a train, her piece was rich and imposing but with a twinkle.

 Azam Ali

A solo, plaintive oboe began the next movement by Mychael Danna inspired by Mother Teresa of Calcutta from Time magazine, 1975. It was dark, rumbling, and dissonant, calling attention to Teresa’s lack of belief. Danna incorporated her prayer for peace and its Sanskrit inspiration, sung in English, Arabic, and Hindi by Iranian soundtrack singer Azam Ali, who was miked very closely, letting her sing with a quiet, thin, and effectively frail voice. Harry Gregson-Williams was next with the frisky and high-spirited “Two Girls with Sparklers” (1970), and fortunately always kept the strings sparkling.


Unlike the other nine composers, Ihab Darwish had no connection to Hollywood or movies. One of Abu Dhabi Festival’s goals is cultural exchange, but the night felt lopsided in favor of the Americans. There was a lot of talking from the presenters, but none answered the question, outside of philanthropy or the love of art, of why the Emiratis cared about Bob Peak or what his work meant to them. It made Darwish’s inclusion of “Curva Grande, Fastest Corners in Car Racing, Sports Illustrated” (1970) feel more like a condition than a collaboration. However, throwing out all that baggage, his propulsive sense of speed and power on edge fit in well with all the other composers. If you had told me Darwish was a Hollywood composer, I would have believed it.

Leonard Slatkin conducts the Los Angeles Film Orchestra


Jeff Beal continued with excited cellos and dizzying strings in “New York World’s Fair” (1964-65), bringing out the busyness of progress and optimism. Marco Beltrami offered delightful and intricate plucking in the strings, starting with only a few, then building to include the rest of the orchestra with “The Spirit of Sport: Jack Nicklaus Special Olympics 15th Anniversary” (1983). Feeling youthful, carefree, and easy, it ended with a baroque flavor. Beltrami’s section was easily my favorite of the evening. For “Unbound: Jesse Owens, 1936 Berlin Olympics” Michael Abels illustrated Owens’ punishing work and determination, climaxing in triumph.

 Marc Shaiman performing "A Song About Audrey"

Then came Broadway and film composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman performing his new number “A Song About Audrey,” an ode to Audrey Hepburn in a symphonic arrangement arranged by William Ross. It was loaded with references to Townsend, Slatkin, and that evening’s performance, instantly making it irrelevant after the concert ended. It was undeniably comic and cute, and the audience ate up Shaiman’s shameless pandering, making the song less about Audrey and more about Shaiman. The last line went, “This is my song about Audrey, and this was my honor to write,” while Henry Mancini’s Moon River played with lush strings.

Don Davis brought to mind a high-flying Rhinegold with “Golden Eagles” (1978) delivering a great, big, shimmering climax. Bill Conti‘s “The Great Bridge: 100th Anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge” (1983) provided the finale, a city full of drama, turbulence, excitement, and bigness.

I wonder, without the context of Bob Peak’s imagery, if I would recognize it as regular symphonic music or as “movie music.” Sitting in Disney Hall, I couldn’t help comparing this premiere to so much of the new music the LA Phil commissions. Here, out of ten random composers, nine produced music I’d be happy to hear again. Pick any streak of ten premieres at the Phil, and the success rate would be nowhere near 90%. I won’t say that it’s a shame that these composers don’t write “serious” music, but it’s tantalizing to think of what kind of music they and others like them would write in lieu of what the Phil gets (Pictures at an Exhibition Part II, anyone?).

Marco Beltrami, Don Davis, Harry Gregson-Williams, Marc Shaiman,
Her Excellency Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo,
Maria Newman, Robert Townson, Jeff Beal and Ihab Darwish.

Rightfully, the audience enthusiastically applauded, but the night wasn’t over. Robert Townson came back to talk, introduce all the composers, then brought on Abu Dhabi Festival founder and Artistic Director Her Excellency Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, then Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Jacqueline Hamilton, then Peak’s children, and his grandchildren — plus, Slatkin was surprised at the end of the concert to receive The Abu Dhabi Festival Lifetime Achievement award. Back and forth of awards and glad-handing went on for so long that much of the audience, at most a third of Disney Hall’s capacity, sneaked out, soon joined by orchestra members, who abandoned the stage while people were still talking. It’s a shame that there wasn’t an exhibition of Bob Peak’s work for us to see after the show. A tribute like this begs for one. Video is not good enough, especially when the camera zooms all over the place. Peak’s work demands that you stop to look at it. His scribble-laden poster for My Fair Lady, one of my favorites, demands that you stop to look in it. Even a temporary exhibit of reproductions in BP Hall would’ve been welcome. Still, thanks should indeed be given to Townson, as Pictures At An Exhibition: The Paintings of Bob Peak was an absolute triumph.

Leonard Slatkin conducting at Fox

photos by Kyle Espeleta

Pictures At An Exhibition: The Paintings of Bob Peak
produced by Robert Townson Productions and Abu Dhabi Festival
Leonard Slatkin the Los Angeles Film Orchestra
Walt Disney Concert Hall, June 14, 2024

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