Sunday, February 06, 2000

Butler County native makes sweet music in Hollywood

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BURBANK, Calif. — David Bell surveyed the chamber orchestra assembled before him and declared:

        “I always tell people, "This is the best orchestra in the world. It's the best in the history of the world.'”

        Some of the world's top musicians, who had migrated to Hollywood for film, TV and music recording, were warming up before playing the sound track to a Showtime family movie, Sandy Bottom Orchestra, based on a novel by Garrison Keillor and his wife, Jenny Lind Nilsson.

        Mr. Bell, the Butler County native who composed the score, was about to conduct the 31-piece orchestra in what has become an increasingly rare scene in Hollywood. More and more TV programs use computerized synthesizer music.

        “The studios just don't want to pay that much anymore,” said Mr. Bell, 45, a 1972 graduate of Lemon-Monroe High School.

        But Sandy Bottom Orchestra, to premiere sometime this summer, will be different. Showtime provided a bigger budget for the music, at the request of director-producer Brad Wigor, a Cincinnati native.

        “The name of the show is Sandy Bottom Orchestra, so they came through with the money for an orchestra,” said Mr. Wigor, 44, a 1973 Indian Hill High graduate.

        Glenne Headly (Mr. Holland's Opus, ER) will star in the film as a classical musician who gave up her career to marry a dairy farmer (Tom Irwin from My So-Called Life) who lives in a small Wisconsin town. Madeline Zima (The Nanny) will play their daughter, a violin prodigy, who has struggled to fit in at school.

        “Most shows now use a synthesizer and a couple of musicians,” said Mr. Bell, who in 16 years has scored 200 hours of Star Trek: Voyager and Deep Space Nine; Murder She Wrote; Simon & Simon; Equal Justice and In the Heat of the Night. But work has been drying up with only two prime-time series, Voyager and JAG, using orchestras this season, he said.

        With Showtime's blessing, Mr. Wigor hired the fellow Ohioan to compose 30 minutes of music after filming was completed outside Toronto in November. On a recent January morning, the 31 musicians gathered at O'Henry Sound Studios with their violins, violas, french horns, harp, cellos, contrabasses, oboe, flute, clarinet and bassoon.

        Mr. Wigor sat in the sound engineer's booth while Mr. Bell conducted the orchestra arrangements, varying in length from three minutes to 19 seconds. The director and conductor each had TV monitors to watch scenes being synchronized to the score.

Making music as they go
        The orchestra, which was seeing the music for the first time, rehearsed each piece several times before each recording. After each take, Mr. Bell would huddle with Mr. Wigor and mixing engineer Murray McFadden in the control room to review the final product on a TV monitor.

        Sometimes their discussions were over a mere one second of music, such as when Mr. Wigor thought a crescendo came too late in the 95-second opening theme accompanying an aerial shot over the town.

        So Mr. Bell announced a 10-minute break, during which he rewrote the music on a Yamaha piano in an adjacent studio.

        “We needed a change in the main title (music) to fit an optical effect. It needed to be tighter, so I changed a few bars,” said Mr. Bell, son of the late Paul Bell, longtime Lemon-Monroe music teacher.

        It's not uncommon for scores to be changed on the fly, when the video runs shorter or longer than anticipated, he said.

        “On Star Trek, sometimes I have to do a major rewrite on a 10-minute break or during lunch,” he said. “Deadline pressure can be a great motivator, when the whole orchestra is sitting there, and it's costing (producers) thousands of dollars a minute.”

        Although he grew up in a musical family, singing in Monroe school musicals and playing trumpet in the marching band, Mr. Bell never paid attention to background orchestrations on 1960s TV shows.

        “It never occurred to me where the music came from. I never noticed it until I was in college,” said Mr. Bell, who studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., after graduating from Miami University. He also studied conducting with Leonard Bernstein at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute at the Hollywood Bowl.

A full-time composer
        For the past 16 years, he had been a full-time Hollywood composer. He was the music man for the George Washington, Ellis Island and North & South: Book III miniseries; Kenny Rogers' The Gambler Part II; Cybill Shepherd's Memphis and The Oksana Baiul Story. He also wrote a book, Getting the Best Score for Your Film, published in 1994.

        Of all his projects, Mr. Bell said he felt a special kinship with Sandy Bottom Orchestra, which was filmed through the voice of the family's teen-age daughter.

        “I come from a small town. I was in the church choir and the high school orchestra, so I felt I was writing (music) about my own childhood in a way. I had all the questions and doubts she had at that age about wanting to be a musician,” he said.

        The result was a very moving score which brought tears to the eyes of several in the control room, people who had not seen a frame of the film before that day.

        “When I was writing some of the emotional sentimental scenes, at times I couldn't see the paper, because I began crying. It was so moving,” he said.

        By the end of the recording session at 3 p.m., Mr. Bell was in tears, too. “Blubbering like an idiot,” to use his words.

        “It was a wonderful day,” he said. “It was the best orchestra I'd ever had in my career. It was the kind of talent that other composers only dreamed of. And it reminded me of why I got into this business: This was the kind of music, and kind of show, that brought me out here.”

        It was an incredible experience for all of us. Too bad we'll have to wait six to eight months to see the movie.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.