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Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music 2013: Of all the Newmans in the history of film music, Thomas Newman might one day turn out to be the most accomplished of all

August 1, 2013


Aug. 01--With all due respect to the late great Paul Newman and his amazing career, Hollywood's most powerful and durable Newman brand name has nothing to do with spaghetti sauce.

It does, however, have everything to do with music, specifically music as it relates to the movies.

Thomas Newman, no relation to Paul, arrives in Santa Cruz this week as a guest composer for the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, carrying a name that is to film music what the name Wallenda is to tightrope walking.

Those interested in keeping the names straight might now want to grab a pencil.

The 57-year-old Thomas Newman is the son of Alfred Newman, who worked as a composer, conductor or musical director for more than 200 Hollywood films beginning in 1930, including "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "How Green Was My Valley," "All About Eve" and many more.

Thomas's uncles, Lionel and Emil Newman, were also celebrated figures in music for film and TV. His brother David Newman is a still-active film composer of renown ("Ice Age," "Serenity"). His cousin Randy Newman -- yes, that Randy Newman -- ranks along with Tom Waits and Paul Simon as one of the greatest American singer/songwriters of his generation, not to mention a heavyweight in the film-music world himself.

But the amazing thing is that Thomas Newman might one day emerge as the greatest of them all. His resume includes some of the most well-known films of the last 20 years -- "The Shawshank Redemption," "Finding Nemo," "The Green Mile," "WALL-E," "Little Children," "Skyfall" and perhaps most famously, "American Beauty," the tuned percussion on which became his sonic trademark. He also scored the landmark TV mini-series "Angels in America," as well as HBO's "Six Feet Under" and the current hit "The Newsroom."

He comes to Santa Cruz to hear the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra take on his orchestral piece "It Got Dark," a piece commissioned by the Kronos Quartet. The piece will be presented on Saturday at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium as part of the Festival's tribute to Kronos.

This will not be Newman's first time in Santa Cruz, however. Hidden in his cascade of film credits is a little 1987 B-movie called "The Lost Boys."

"I do remember coming up to Santa Cruz and being on the Boardwalk while the movie was being shot," said Newman. "It was all about vampires before vampires were all the rage. It was very early in my career, and I remember wondering about how well I could take those images and put some meaningful music behind them."

Despite the rich family heritage, it was not at all certain that Newman would go into the family business. His father died when Thomas was just 14 -- "I don't think I ever really shared a meaningful musical moment with him," he said. It was his mother, Martha, who encouraged young Thomas in his musical interests, but he grew up stiff-arming music.

"I just never thought I would do it, because it always struck me as really, really difficult work."

In college, his cousin Randy was enjoying big success as a singer/songwriter, which, he said, was intimidating. He worried about where his own musical contribution might come from. The family name was a burden. He played in a rock band that fizzled after a while.

"I woke up around the age of 27, and still wanted to do music. By that time, I had said to myself, I'm not going to try to please anybody anymore because that's not done me much good up to this point. So, I'm just going to please my own ears. And I got synthesizers and some sequencers and I just locked myself in a room and started messing around with the technology of the day."

He first started to grapple with the Newman family destiny by composing for such quintessentially '80s movies as "Revenge of the Nerds," "Desperately Seeking Susan" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." In the 1990s, he began working with some of Hollywood's major directorial names such as Robert Altman, Milos Forman and Robert Redford.

In 1995, he was nominated twice for an Academy Award for Best Original Score for "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Little Women." He has been nominated for an Oscar 11 times but has never won it.

The piece to be played Saturday night at the Cabrillo Festival was first conceived as a piece for string quartet, commissioned to Newman by David Harrington of Kronos. Several months later, the piece was reworked for orchestra and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Newman said that fans familiar with his work in film scores might recognize some motifs or signature sounds in "Dark."

"There are fundamental differences between film music and concert music. In film, you're really sculpting to speakers and the idea of a fixed performance. Obviously, in a concert environment, the piece is kind of a living breathing organism that carries you with it. I didn't make any effort to subvert my style now that I was going to be in a concert hall, so I'm guessing there will be elements of the piece that you could point towards me stylistically."

Newman said that he believes in genetic proclivity toward a talent in music, particularly in his family's case, but that there are also many other elements that can lead to a successful career in music. Carrying the Newman name gave me many opportunities that other composers might not have had, but it also carried considerable pressures and expectations.

"It's lovely in retrospect, and I'm very proud to be my father's son and to be my cousin Randy's cousin. But it was a long shadow to emerge from."


The big news at this summer's Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music is the absence of its icon, conductor and musical director Marin Alsop.

Due to a hand injury she suffered last month, Alsop has decided to hand over the conducting duties to the Festival's former associate conductor Carolyn Kuan for the first weekend, and composer and conductor Brad Lubman for the second and final weekend.

FRIDAY: 'Dust Dances' at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium opens the Festival with Derek Bermel's African inspired piece 'Dust Dances,' featuring the 'gyil,' a xylophone-style instrument from Ghana. Also on the schedule is Kevin Puts's Flute Concerto, featuring guest soloist Adam Walker, and Christopher Rouse's 'Symphony No. 3.' 8 p.m.

SATURDAY: Celebrated Hollywood composer Thomas Newman makes his Cabrillo debut with his orchestral piece 'It Got Dark.' Also, Mason Bates dives into the realm of electronica with 'Alternative Energy' and Sean Friar's software-inspired 'Noise Gate.' 8 p.m.

SUNDAY: This year's Free Family Concert features 'The Animated Orchestra' composed and narrated by Gregory Rians Smith, beginning with the ever popular Tour of the Orchestra. 1 p.m.

SUNDAY: America's most acclaimed string quartet, the Kronos Quartet, is the subject of this celebration of 40 years of performance with pieces by Michael Gordon, Nicole Lizee, Pamela Z and Amon Tobin, as well as Wagner's 'Prelude from Tristan and Isolde.' 8 p.m.

AUG. 10: The second weekend kicks off with a Saturday night concert featuring Andrew Norman's 'Unstuck,' Enrico Chapela's piece for electric cello titled 'Magnestar,' featuring soloist Johannes Moser and the Symphony No. 10 by Philip Glass, a U.S. premiere. 8 p.m.

AUG. 11: The closing Music at the Mission concerts at the Mission San Juan Bautista present the latest work from composers Anna Clyne, George Walker and Magnus Lindberg, the latter's 'Clarinet Concerto,' featuring the performance of Scandinavian woodwinder Emil Jonason.

For more information on the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, go to


As is tradition during the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Church Street in front of the Civic Auditorium will feature two days of live music, food, wine and art. The Church Street Fair takes place Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. with performers that include the Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre, the Inciters and lots more. For more info and a full slate of performers, go to


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