Peter Bernstein on making it in music and the magic of film scores

Wednesday, September 4, 2019 - 08:32

The name Bernstein is synonymous with the music of the cinema. Even if you aren’t familiar with it, you will undoubtedly recognise some of the iconic scores penned by Elmer Bernstein, from The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape to Airplane! and Ghostbusters

But Elmer wasn’t the only member of the Bernstein family to appear on the credits for the latter of those two memorable movies. By that time his son Peter Bernstein had joined him in the business, working alongside his father as an orchestrator. Peter went on to carve his own path as a composer, working with George Lucas' Lucasfilm on The Ewok Adventure before composing for a number of hit US television series including 21 Jump Street, Weird Science and Chicago Hope.

In September 2019, Peter Bernstein joins us here at Southbank Centre to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra as they provided live orchestral accompaniment to a screening of The Great Escape. Before he joined us for this premiere performance of one of his father’s most well-loved film soundtracks, we caught up with him to discuss his life in music and what makes a great film score.

Southbank Centre: Your career in music has spanned a lot of different experiences and roles, from band and session bass player, to producer, to orchestration, to composing and conducting. Which would you say has given you the most pleasure?

Peter Bernstein: There is no substitute for the pure joy and exhilaration of being a performing rock n roll bass player in a band that's doing well. Unfortunately that is usually surrounded by months of hard touring, personality conflicts, contested career decisions and so forth, to say nothing of just getting older in the process.

There has been a deeper satisfaction in taking on projects which I had no idea I could be successful at and carrying them through. Projects such as my first record as a producer, or my first major assignment for orchestra, The Ewok Adventure, a two hour cable movie for Lucasfilm. In both cases I came into a position I knew a fair amount about, but had no idea if I could do the work to everyone's satisfaction, especially my own. For me that's the best part of my career.


With such a famous father, was it difficult to establish your own reputation in the music industry, or was it more of a help?

Both. Growing up in the business, and later working for him, taught me a lot. Not just about music, but more importantly what it takes to survive the rough and tumble of this business; something he did at the highest level for over 50 years. 

On the other hand, I had to learn how to separate who I am from other people's perception of me based on my family. In the rock n roll business this was not a problem, but as soon as I started working as a composer it changed. I found myself interviewing for assignments where the producers clearly couldn't distinguish between hiring me or hiring my father. I had to come to the realisation that this was their problem not mine, and if they can't see me as separate then I don't want to work for them anyway. That became much easier as time passed and my career solidified, but at first it was shocking to my naive self. 


Growing up in the music business, and later working for my father, taught me a lot. Not just about music, but also what it takes to survive the rough and tumble.
Peter Bernstein


You worked with your father for over a decade, principally as an orchestrator; how was it working with him so closely? Did it change your perception or understanding of him at all?

We really enjoyed those years of working closely together. It was a bit of a whirlwind because we were both so busy – I was still doing rock n roll and later composing, and he had his side projects. Still, he was a wonderful mentor, not only to me but many other aspiring composers as well. It certainly deepened my appreciation of him as a composer, as I was able to see his creative process first hand. In later years we would share composing credits occasionally. He'd write a theme and I'd write the rest, or we'd split sections of a score. We conducted for each other and even wrote music for each other. We had a great deal of fun in those days and were able to become friends and colleagues in addition to being family.


In recent years you have often conducted performances of your late father’s music; I wonder is part of the appeal of this, having a way for you to maintain a connection with him?

It's a funny thing the conducting. It was a skill I had to learn simply because it was something a composer was expected to be able to do to record their music. Then about ten years ago opportunities presented themselves and I went with it. No-one is more surprised than me to find myself doing this after so many years as a composer. I do like conducting his music. I am comfortable with it in a way that I think no one else could be. Yes it feels good that it's him, and sometimes there is even music where I was the original orchestrator.


Elmer and Peter Bernstein, courtesy of The Bernstein Estate

How does a great score help bring a film to life?

If only we had time for a full discussion. I can say that in my father's case he always looked for the emotional heart of a film. He would watch a new movie over and over until, in his words, ‘something happened.’ I take that to mean his finding of the essence of the project; the aspect he most wanted to express musically. Thus, the motive force of The Magnificent Seven, the emotional child's-eye-view of To Kill a Mockingbird or the march from The Great Escape

Each of these scores brought emotional focus which literally underscores the feeling and even brings an added dimension to the films, even beyond what the filmmakers themselves imagined. That is the power of film music. It's hard to imagine any of those films without the scores, and when watching them one thinks "of course that's the music that should go there." But that was not the case when the film was first assembled without music, and all those creative decisions were yet to be made. 


Is it possible that it can go either way? Can a poor, or perhaps poorly thought out, score 'break' a film?

There is a quote, sometimes attributed to the great film composer Jerry Goldsmith; "I've never seen a good score save a bad movie, but I have seen a lot of bad scores saved by good movies." I'll go with that.


That is the power of film music. It's hard to imagine The Magnificent Seven or The Great Escape without the scores, and when watching them one thinks "of course that's the music that should go there.
Peter Bernstein


You’re joining us at Southbank Centre to conduct The Great Escape live; one of your father’s most memorable scores. What is it you particularly enjoy about this score?

There’s so much to enjoy. How aggressively it pushes the story along without getting in the way. As I alluded to before, the emotional focus and the feeling of the film being inseparable from the music. The march – of course. The motorcycle chases – of course. All the various decisions which had to be made along the way, and turned out to be the right ones. It is also a rather adventurous score musically in various subtle ways, and with it's many twists and turns it presents some interesting conducting challenges. 

Personally I remember being at the recordings and how impressed my 13-year-old self was with the music. I was just at the age to begin to appreciate this and it made a lasting impression. Seeing the film again, after not having seen it end-to-end or heard the score (other than the march) for decades, I was re-awakened to that 13-year-old experience which continues.


Seeing a film with a score performed live is quite a different experience to seeing it in a cinema? What do you think the live score performance brings to the audience’s experience?

The full power of the composer's original creative conception coupled with the immediacy of live performance. No recording can capture that and no theatre sound system can reproduce it. It's a group experience and hopefully that uniquely human attribute, the creative process, comes through.


And following your appearance here at Royal Festival Hall, what’s next for you?

I have been touring with the original Ghostbusters, conducting the score live, as well as doing more general film music concerts. I have also been preparing some of my father's more obscure fantasy and sci-fi scores into big suites for performance. It should be very impressive. It would be nice, when time allows, to do some composing again – after all it was my life for over 30 years; but in that world nobody calls me 'maestro.'



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