Where you’re terrific if you’re even good

A few days ago, while thinking over the latest chapter of Greg Sandow’s book-in-progress in performance, I remembered a great comic riff on avant-garde music. It’s from the 1964 movie of “The World of Henry Orient,” featuring Peter Sellers in one of his early Hollywood roles. He portrays a lecherous concert pianist who’s a) having an affair with a married woman, and b) being stalked by two teenage girls who have engineered a rather unlikely crush on him. (It’s actually a pretty innocent and sweet movie—it’s 1964, after all.) The film establishes Henry Orient’s musical bona fides with a set piece in Carnegie Hall: he performs a “modern” piano concerto (during which he gets lost, and only gets through the cadenza with hints from the conductor). If I recall it correctly, the climax of the piece involves an on-stage steam whistle.

Shockingly enough, YouTube, normally reliable for flagrant copyright infringement, was no help in finding this scene online, and nobody else seems to have uploaded it. (A DVD is available, but I’m cheap; you can watch the trailer here.) But you can at least listen to a portion of the concerto on the website of its composer, Ken Lauber. Elmer Bernstein scored the movie, but only after David Raskin was fired from the project, which left the concerto uncomposed at the time of filming. Lauber, a 23-year-old assistant in United Artists’ publishing division, got the nod. As he puts it:

The dialogue went something like this…

Mike Stewart [Lauber’s boss at UA]: “Hey kid. Can you write a 7 min. piano concerto and record it in three days? We need it for playback for a shoot with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.”

KL: “How much do I get paid and do I get credit?”

Mike Stewart: “You’re already getting paid so forget the money. If they use it, I’ll see what I can do to get you credit at the end of the film somewhere.”

I’ll go out on a limb and say that this is the best 3-day, 7-minute avant-garde piano concerto ever written. It’s quite entertaining, and, at least musically, a pretty knowing and affectionate pastiche/parody of “modern music” as it was in the 60’s (visually, I remember the orchestra members being portrayed as rather eye-rollingly jaded about the piece).

Lauber has gone on to have the kind of career I would probably enjoy, never quite breaking through to wide recognition, but keeping busy on an unusually wide range of projects as a composer, arranger, orchestrator, producer, etc. (He also just started a blog.) Any CV that includes studies with Gene Krupa and Vincent Persichetti, arranging backup choirs for Lieber and Stoller, and scoring everything from avant-garde independent films to TV mini-series to Playboy videos is my kind of résumé.

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