Music, movies and a ‘Maestro of the Moment’

The last time Gerald Fried performed at Yale was in August 1956 — at a Duke Ellington concert featuring the jazz legend himself on the piano. Upon mention of the recording of this concert, Fried recalls his part in the show, “That’s me doing the sexy oboe solo in the second movement.”

Fifty-two years later, Fried is back at Yale to conduct his own compositions with Yale’s Davenport Pops Orchestra. Although he has been appropriately dubbed “Maestro of the Moment” for the Saturday event, he is considered by most to be the true “Maestro of the Movies.” Fried — who has composed and arranged music for hundreds of films, television series and other works — won a Grammy and an Emmy award for his score of the ground-breaking television mini-series “Roots.”

Nathaniel Granor ’09, head conductor of the Davenport Pops Orchestra — more commonly referred to as “DPops” — said there is a combined feeling of excitement, nervousness and great anticipation among the group. With just six weeks to rehearse nearly an hour of music, these sentiments were expected.

“What happens if he picks up his baton, and we start playing … and his first reaction is ‘That’s what you sound like?’” Granor said.

But Granor is confident that this will not happen and is more excited than anything else. In just the start of their fourth year as an orchestra, Granor said that the young DPops is experiencing a “coming of age.”

Nicholas Bayless ’10 and Kate Swisher ’09, assistant conductors of DPops, agreed that this experience is not only a great honor but also a great challenge for the orchestra. While in past concerts the conductors have not had the benefit of composers own interpretations of their pieces, Fried, who composed the music himself, will be conducting and in attendance at the concert to see how DPops performs his work.

“Now, we’re really being tested to see if our interpretation is really what [Fried] wants — because he’ll be here to conduct tomorrow,” Bayless said.

DPops founder Justin Lo ’08 said Fried might even be more anxious than the students are. Celebrating his 80th birthday with this performance, Fried showed signs of his own excitement in an interview Monday evening.

He asked: “How many composers, years after they were at their professional peak, get to conduct their music again in such an austere, favorable circumstance?”

Fried will conduct selections from many of his own compositions, including the suite from “Roots,” Emmy-nominated “Mystic Warrior,” and themes from Stanley Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire,” “The Killing” and “March of the Gloved Gladiators.”

“Roots” was a particularly special project for the composer. Originally aimed by network executives at a primarily middle-class white audience, it told the story of an African youth taken from his family to be sold in the American slave trade.

“The music problem was how to make it sound authentic, even indigenous,” said Fried, “and yet reach into the minds of the audience and reach their feelings.”

A modest man, Fried considered himself lucky not only to be here to conduct DPops but also to break into the entertainment industry in the first place.

“It pays well, and everybody wants to get in,” Fried said. “You cannot get in until you can prove yourself, and you cannot prove yourself until you get in. It’s [a] catch-22.”

Fried said that everyone who somehow broke through that has his or her own story. He shared his own story of how he wound up breaking into the industry with the conductors over dinner. A 19-year-old in the Bronx, Fried, an admitted “wise guy,” hung around with other young artists in the village. “One of those nerds” filmed a short and assumed that since Fried was a jazz sax player and an oboe major at Juilliard, he knew how to conduct and compose a film score.

“At that point, I decided I wanted to be a composer … For the next four or five months, I went to three or four movies a day, trying to understand what movie music was and how it worked,” Fried recalled.

After finishing his first project, the film and the score were good enough for Fried and the nerd to be hired by RKO Pathe to work on more projects.

“That nerd was Stanley Kubrick,” she said.

DPops’ first “Maestro of the Moment” concert is the first of what its leaders hope will become an annual tradition, according to Swisher. Fried will conduct the free concert at Battell Chapel on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. He also will be giving a Masters’ Tea on Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Davenport College.

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