Son adapts his father’s ‘Toccata for Toy Trains’ for the concert stage
Peter Bernstein remembers his famous father’s “Toccata for Toy Trains” from his childhood.
Elmer Bernstein, the late Santa Barbara composer known for themes for movies such as “The Magnificent Seven,” wrote “Toccata for Toy Trains” to go with a short animated film of the same name in the 1950s.
“I was under 10 when it was originally written,” Peter Bernstein, an arranger, composer and conductor, told the News-Press. “It was the perfect age to watch movies about toy trains and pair music with it.”
Now Peter Bernstein, who goes around the country conducting orchestras playing his father’s score from the first “Ghostbusters” movie, has created a concert arrangement of the “Toccata for Toy Trains.” And the Santa Barbara Symphony will perform it at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21 and 3 p.m. Jan. 22 at The Granada, 1214 State St.
In addition to “Toccata for Toy Trains,” the concerts will include Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”), as well as Miguel del Aguila’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, “The Journey of a Lifetime (El viaje de una vida)” with violin soloist Guillermo Figueroa. More about those works will be discussed in Friday’s News-Press.
As a child, Peter Bernstein enjoyed his father’s toccata. As an adult, he appreciates the craft behind it.
“To be able to go back and re-work it (the ‘Toccata’) not only refreshes those memories, but it reinforces the musicianship with which it was written,” Peter told the News-Press.
“There’s a whimsical quality to all of the music, which you don’t see in his (later) film compositions,” Peter said.
“I like that it is decidedly not in the cinematic universe where he spent most of his career. It’s a completely different look at him as a composer,” Peter said. “It was written with continuous performance in mind.”
Elmer wrote it for Charles and Ray Earnes, who produced 125 short art films including “Toccata for Toy Trains.” He composed music for several other films by Charles and Ray Earnes.
The toccata is performed by a small group of musicians.
“You can think of this as his chamber music,” Peter said.
“The only hard part for me was deciding which section not to use, to condense it from 14 minutes, the length of the original film, to the seven minutes that are contained in the suite,” Peter said.
Nir Kabaretti, the symphony’s conductor and artistic director, said a small ensemble from the orchestra — including four woodwind players, three percussionists, one trumpeter and one pianist — will perform the toccata. He praised Peter for being loyal to the way Elmer intended the work to be performed.
“I love the fact that the son took this project and provided a new score for us to play to honor Elmer’s legacy,” Maestro Kabaretti told the News-Press. “He was a very important figure not only in the film industry, but also in the musical life of Santa Barbara.”
Elmer wrote works for the Santa Barbara Symphony and did some guest conducting, Maestro Kaberetti said.
Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) composed scores for more than 150 major movies — everything from “To Kill A Mockingbird” to “The Ten Commandments.”
A graduate of New York University and The Juilliard School, Elmer, living in Los Angeles, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s.
“He always called it ‘gray-listed,’” Peter said. “There was no official black list by the time they got around to him. He had a difficult time working for a few years. This is when I was a very young child, 3 or 4 at the time.
“He worked as a rehearsal pianist and helped other people to write songs for movies without credit,” Peter said. “He did all kinds of things to survive.
“He was very close to giving up and moving back to New York when a studio executive, making good on a favor my father had done for him, introduced him to Cecil B. DeMille to write some temporary music for ‘The Ten Commandments,’” which Mr. DeMille was directing, Peter said. “Then the person who was supposed to be the composer (of the permanent music) fell ill.
“My father was offered the role of composer,” Peter said. “In the process, DeMille saved him from the black list.
To this day, Peter remains impressed with his father’s iconic score for “The Ten Commandments,” which starred Charlton Heston as Moses. “The boldness of the music — it’s quite stirring.”
Maestro Kabaretti agreed. “He was able to get the sound that we think is a biblical sound.
“With his skills, his imagination, he was able to create the feeling that you are there, with ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ ‘The Ten Commandments’ or any other film that he did,” Maestro Kabaretti said.
“I love his beautiful melodies,” Maestro Kabaretti said. “He had an incredible sense of tunes and melodies, of something that comes to your ear and touches your heart. There are always very interesting rhythms.”
Peter said Elmer was careful to avoid being locked into any particular genre of music and was looking for a Western when “The Magnificent Seven” came along.
“A great mental exercise is to imagine a Western landscape with mountains with a group of people riding horses toward it in silence,” Peter said. “Then imagine the same scene with that theme playing.”