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The Sunday Conversation: Nick Glennie-Smith

The Oscars conductor talks about rehearsals and a love of music.

February 26, 2012|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Nick Glennie-Smith finds that conducting the Oscars ceremony is a bit like being in a band.
Nick Glennie-Smith finds that conducting the Oscars ceremony is a bit like… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

Film composer Nick Glennie-Smith, 60, attends his first Academy Awards show Sunday night as the conductor of its 60-piece orchestra. A frequent collaborator of Oscar-winning film composer Hans Zimmer, who shares the evening's music consultant credit with Pharrell Williams, his composing credits include "Secretariat" and "Ella Enchanted."

How did you get the gig?

One of my very old colleagues — well, friend, really — a guy called Hans Zimmer, got approached by [show producer] Brian Grazer to look after the music for the Oscars this year. He asked me if I would help him, as I have with so many projects in the past, and conduct the show, so I said, "I would love to."

As a film composer, do you have much opportunity to conduct an orchestra?

I always conduct my own scores and I also, if I have time, conduct for other people who invite me to participate. I love conducting. I know the process and the control room side, dealing with directors and filmmakers who have specific things they want, but also I'm a musician, so I work very well with musicians. I played with bands in London years ago.

What did you play?

Keyboards. I've done a lot of work with a lot of people you've heard of and a lot of people nobody's heard of. Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Roger Waters. Lots of very big records just as a session keyboard player.

When you're conducting orchestras playing your music, isn't that in a studio? I would guess that live conducting, especially for the Oscars, would be quite a bit more complicated.

It is. There are going to be people talking to me in my headphones throughout. I've got to really learn the show. It's more like doing a concert, being in a band; you know you've got to do one thing after the other and just be ready at all times to play.

I would think it would be even more complicated than conducting a concert, because usually you know what you're going to play beforehand.

It's slightly more complicated. First of all, we have to come up with arrangements of all the movies that have been nominated and this year, rather than just picking a bit from the movie, we've been in touch with the composers, saying, "Which bit do you think you'd like to hear represent your movie?" Hans has been through things in the past when maybe they picked a piece he didn't think was most appropriate for a movie that got nominated. So that's a courtesy we've accorded all the composers this year.

Then we have to do arrangements that work from that movie, and when they show all the nominated movies and the names of the people who've worked on them in whatever category it is, we have to have those five in most cases. And this year, there are only two for best song and there are only nine for best movie out of a possible 10. We have to have all those pieces ready to play at a moment's notice. Only when we hear who the winner is do we start playing that piece. That is quite complicated. That takes everybody being on their toes.

So you really have to jump on that. Is your sheet music computerized?

We still use paper. For best picture, there are some that are going to be more likely than others to win, so we kind of put a bit of a gamble on, saying we're probably going to have that one. But we don't know until we play. It's possible to fit all the music we need onto three sheets of paper because they're reasonably short each time.

The other thing is we have to adjust how we're playing it, because for different categories people are sitting at different distances from the stage. Best actor and best picture [nominees] are invited to sit at the front, but for best makeup, they're probably further back. So we have to keep watching how long it takes people to get there and adjust our music accordingly.

How is the Oscar orchestra put together?

We hand-picked all our players. We've got a fabulous band this year. Obviously a lot of the players I know from conducting movie scores and working on movies here for so long. But also because of my record background, I know people from the more rock 'n' roll side.

You mentioned that as a film composer you have experience working with other people with roles in film, like directors. Does that carry over to the Oscar show?

Yes, it's always a collaborative process. We've been working very closely with Don Mischer, the director. We have scripts and rundowns that are changing on a daily basis almost as different things move around. We've got a rehearsal on Wednesday to get the orchestra sat where they're going to be and make sure the microphones and headphones are working. And then Saturday evening and Sunday morning we have rehearsal before the show on Sunday afternoon.

That doesn't sound like a lot of rehearsal.

Well, they're world-class musicians. And a lot of the people in the orchestra have done these awards shows before, so they know the kind of pace things move on. They're fearless individuals, basically.

Do you guys get paid much?

I get paid for the actual sessions, for doing pre-records and I get paid for the actual evening and the rehearsals. So do all the musicians. But the majority of the work is because we love the academy.

In other words, the amount you're paid isn't going to send you to the Bahamas.

No, not even on a sailboat. It's a very fun evening to be involved with and an honor and privilege to be able to do the show. And I think it's going to be different enough this year that people say, "Oh, the music…" We're trying to tell people how important music is to the whole movie process.

Do you think movie music has been underappreciated?

I'm not sure. I just think maybe this year people will be slightly more aware of the music and its being a little fresher.

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