For 50 years, Walter Scharf had a career as one of Hollywood's most active film composers. His name is on more than 125 movies, including "Hans Christian Andersen," "Funny Girl" and "Ben," the latter yielding a No. 1 single as recorded by Michael Jackson, not to mention an Oscar nomination. But at 78, Scharf is now looking for new frontiers and challenges.
"I haven't scored a movie in five years," admitted Scharf from his condominium in Bel-Air where he lives with his wife, Betty. "I get offers all the time, but I keep turning them down. I want to do other things now."
One of these new ventures will take place tonight when his five-movement composition "The Tree Still Stands" receives its world premiere at the Stephen S. Wise Temple, conducted by Michael Isaacson. Scored for six soloists, a children's choir and a full symphony orchestra, the work will be programmed with two other Scharf works and works by several other film composers including Elmer Bernstein and Bill Conti.
"It's my sincere hope that 'The Tree Still Stands' will become part of the standard classical repertory," he said. "It is the first piece of its kind--commissioned as a major Jewish work--since Ernest Bloch's 'Sacred Service' of 1933."
The composition combines traditional Hebrew text from the Torah with other lyrics by Arthur Hamilton. The text follows the development of a man from adolescence to adulthood, each of the movements representing a stage in life, beginning with "The Bar-Mitzvah."
"It was back in December that I went to Wise Temple and saw the beautiful building there," Scharf recalled. "When Cantor Lam asked me to write the piece and told me I could do whatever I wanted, I guess I became inspired. I wrote the piece in 3 1/2 months."
"Wise Temple has the largest commissioning program for new works of any other synagogue in the world," stated Lam when asked about the recent Scharf commission. "Last year we commissioned about six new works and this year there will be about 10 new works including Walter's."
Scharf said he is no avant-gardist. When it comes to the work of such composers as Arnold Schoenberg, he finds it wonderful that there are various types of music throughout the world, but expresses little interest in experimenting with styles other than what he is most familiar with.
"I'm very much an opera buff and 'The Tree Still Stands' is actually half opera," he continued. "I like Ravel a lot too. In fact, I think that Maurice Ravel was the most remarkable musical figure of the 20th Century. I remember meeting him once and it had a lasting impression on me. One of my future ambitions is to write an opera on his life."
Certainly Scharf's association with many of the more popular American musicians of his time, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and even Philip Glass, has given him insight into different musical worlds. But he admits that he hasn't been completely happy with the course of music, especially the music of the recent past.
"But after 15 years of torture, nice things are happening again. Andrew Lloyd Webber is someone who is making these things happen," observed Scharf.
But outside of his efforts to be accepted as a composer of symphonic music for the concert hall, "The Tree Still Stands" is also a serious statement on Scharf's relationship to Judaism.
"Throughout my life, I went to synagogue occasionally and have always taken my Jewishness seriously. But it wasn't until my mother died that I began to really reflect on it all.
"She used to help immigrants coming to New York adjust and assimilate into the American way of life working through an organization called the Hebrew Orphan Society. At her funeral, about 10 to 20,000 people showed up. I just didn't realize what an impact she had had on so many people."
Today, Scharf's activities are centered on his teaching. He enjoys his students and strongly cautions them when it comes to a career in the movies.
"Composing for films is a gypsy industry," he warns. "I was lucky, but also had years of starving and it was tough. You have to put up with so much rejection."