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'Rocky' Composer To Conduct Symphony Pops Concerts

Composer Bill Conti will step into the role of principal pops conductor for the San Diego Symphony.
Composer Bill Conti will step into the role of principal pops conductor for the San Diego Symphony.
'Rocky' Composer To Conduct Symphony Pops Concerts
GUESTBill Conti, principal pops conductor, San Diego Symphony.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego symphony pops audiences said a sad goodbye this year to Marvin Hamlisch. He died in August at age 68. A new era in pops concerts started moving forward this week with the announcement that Hollywood composer and conductor Bill Conti would take up the baton next summer. He has composed the themes for TV shows like dynasty, news programs like ABC world news tonight, but his iconic composition is from the movie Rocky, the unforgettable going to fly now. Welcome to Midday Edition. CONTI: It's great to be here, Maureen! CAVANAUGH: You've conducted pops concerts -- CONTI: Since 19 -- forgive me for interrupts. CAVANAUGH: Interrupt away! [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: Rocky comes out in 1976. So in 1977, I opened for Cleo lane, you could -- shall I explain? CAVANAUGH: I know Cleo lane, jazz singer. CONTI: At the Minnscorp theatre on Broadway. So it began -- I can't do the math. If you do the math, then you have to say how many years ago. So I've been doing it at least that long. CAVANAUGH: But you have worked with a lot of different orchestras, CONTI: That's true. CAVANAUGH: And yet you have a lot of nice things to say for the San Diego symphony orchestra. Why is that? CONTI: Because I've worked with a lot of other orchestras. [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: No, that's actually true. If you've actually travelled a bit, which I have, and recorded and performed with orchestras, literally around the world, then you come to San Diego -- I think I was here a couple three years ago. And you know in the very first opening measures of your rehearsal. So everyone is really nice, right? Hi, welcome. You sit down, okay. Now you have to rehearse. Within the first 30 bars, in your head you're saying oh, strings are going to be great. Uh-oh. We're going to be in problems here with whatever section that you feel. Why? Because you've done this a million times. CAVANAUGH: Right. CONTI: So San Diego was like in the first 30 bars I go, oh, I'm actually going to enjoy this! [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: It's not like the reputation did not proceed. Because it is a first-tier orchestra. So you know that sometimes the PR is as good as it sounds. Sometimes it's not, of course! That works for orchestras as well as singers. When the singer comes in and you find out oh, I'm going to be in the studio creating her voice for a long time. [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: Why can't you just sing this thing! CAVANAUGH: Wow! >> S so you can't do that with an orchestra. If you're good, as the San Diego orchestra is wonderful, and it was a pleasant surprise at the time to enjoy the concerts that I did. And now to come back and a sad memory for Marvin, of course, who was a friend. But an exciting venture for me. I'm not looking forward to traveling as much as I used to travel. So I just live down the road here. CAVANAUGH: Okay. You trained at Julliard. And at some time, the idea of being a classical musician and composer must have occurred to you. But you decided you wanted to go another route, you wanted to go to Hollywood, you wanted to do that kind of composing. Why make that choice? CONTI: Grandfather was a musician, father was a musician, growing up in the house after dinner, they would take a piano vocal of an opera. One would sing the female parts, and one would sing the male parts. So you grow up in this house, you play music because everybody's got to play music if you're in that household. Then you go onto music school, and then you have to make choices. I was a pianist, scholarship on bassoon to Louisiana state university. So while you're there, do you want to be a player or do you want to write that music that made you cry the first time you heard an aria from a movie? And you say the stuff that music is about is not literal. Right? It's not literal. I can be very intellectual about music. But in the end, it's the ultimately fantasy. It enters into you, you like willy Nelson singing Christmas carols, it makes you cry. How can I deny your tears? And I love willy Nelson singing Christmas carols. So it's that unique. I say I want to write that kind of music that moves people. And by the way, I'd like to get paid. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: That's the thing! That's the big part! >> I could do this in theory and say I've had 1-time performances of my greatest works. Or I can say, you know, lifestyles of the rich and famous might not be -- [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: Falcon crest, dynasty, Cagney and Lacey, Karate Kid, the Rockies, all of those. A lot of people have heard this stuff. CAVANAUGH: Let me just play a clip of one of those compositions that made that lifestyle a little bit closer for you, okay? It's the iconic theme song from rocky, going to fly now. (Audio Recording Played) CONTI: How many years ago! Come on! 1976. CAVANAUGH: That's a long time. But do you still enjoy hearing it? CONTI: It keeps on giving. CAVANAUGH: I still enjoy hearing it! I love that song! >> This is sort of interesting because the unique position of having written it, you know, so I'm conducting the academy awards show in 1977. I was nominated for that song. And standing on the podium about to rehearse her song was Barbara Streisand. So she says, you know, Bill, I run every morning to your song. [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: I said oh. I hope you lose, you know is what I -- but she won. I lost. I went home and I said to my wife, I don't really run to my -- do I like it? Yeah, I think it works. I had an objective in the tenth reel. I actually read the script and I saw the movie, and I than he lost. But we felt at this point in the movie, you got to give the people hope that he might win. So if you do it well, and the movie is seen by a lot of people because if you go and said oh, I had a hit. No, no. The stars have to be exactly right everywhere. So they were right. At the end of that training montage is what we called it, the director says I just need about 1.5 minutes. Because the music has a rhythm, and when you do a montage, a montage is little slips of Sly running down the street, medicine ball, working out. CAVANAUGH: Right. CONTI: Now, there are shots of training. But without rhythm and a plan -- he says give me 1.5 minutes. I said all right, he's 1.5 minutes. I had the little movie opened up with the Trumpet, and the little sad song. The guy was a loser for ten reels. I did this endlessly. In the tenth reel, I said I'll put that together, I'll just do it fast. Minute.5 goes by, and the director says I need another 30 seconds. If I don't use the shot with Sly and the ball, and -- give me another 30 seconds. So I tacked on 30 seconds all the way to three minutes. In other words I didn't sit down and write a song. He says give me another 30. At the end, I'm running out of ideas. Running up the stairs! So it turned out. CAVANAUGH: As you conduct the pops concerts, your first one starts July 4th, how are you going to -- you're generaling so well here telling story. How do you plan to engage with the audience? Are you going to tell them stories about the music that you've selected and perhaps -- CONTI: Well, I go to the Boston pops the first time. And I said I need a microphone. They said we don't use a microphone here. I said, no, you don't understand. I use a microphone. I don't want the job here, but you did hire me, and I'd like a microphone. And now this creates such a panic and a stir because he actually wants to talk. Well, yeah! This is not Mozart here. If it's Mozart, I could do 20 minutes on Mozart, and then we'd listen. But it couldn't be like entertaining. It would have to be serious. Because Mozart is serious. And he's not, you know, humorous. The short of it is, I want the microphone. However, if I come into your house, can I automatically take over the room? No. My nature is no. So I'm thinking I did a concert here, I talked, I told stories, I enjoyed the retarat a with the audience. I've not done the outside here, I've done the outside everywhere else and talked, and I will take my lead from the people in the orchestra who have been doing it here forever. What do you like? What's normal for here? Because you can't sit -- that's like the Hollywood bowl. You don't just say, by the way, I don't like those tight shots with the roaming thing. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: But what would you like to bring to these concerts? CONTI: I can only bring me. In other words to say are you going to be different? The rhetorical question. I'll do the question for you. CAVANAUGH: Thank you. [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: Lwhat are you going to do? That's like telling a comic, are you going to make me laugh? I don't know! Do you feel like laughing? I can only do me. I have a high regard for the orchestra, I have a high regard for the music that we will play. I will not let you decide that, meaning I and the orchestra are going to pick the music that we think will entertain you. People here will say by the way, they don't like that. Possibly! Or they really like this. And all that data will come inside, and then I will have to say who I am, not just musically. I will have to interact in some way. I will not be asking questions of the audience. But I could certainly be telling stories. CAVANAUGH: We only have about a minute left, I want you to know that because I hear that you have a tendency to talk a little bit. [ LAUGHTER ] CONTI: Oh, my goodness! CAVANAUGH: I know you conducted for the academy awards show. Do you play music to tell them to get off the stage? Are you the one who times that out? CONTI: No. You only gave me a minute. CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry! >> And Julia Roberts thinks I'm terrible because I play people off. But she didn't get the message that we have a director. And he gently says into my ear, "kill'em." They all listen to me, and I say we're going to "kill" these people. Now, are the person I'm "killing" is about 10 feet away from me. CAVANAUGH: Looking at you with daggers, right? CONTI: Oh, the lowest! The absolutely lowest. CAVANAUGH: The new principle pops conductor for the San Diego symphony, thank you so much. CONTI: Thank you, Maureen.

'Rocky' Composer To Conduct Symphony Pops Concerts
Oscar and Emmy winner Bill Conti will take over as the San Diego Symphony’s new principal pops conductor. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone says the veteran composer is best known for his score to a classic 70s movie.

The image of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa running down a Philadelphia street in grey sweats is now iconic. But that scene from the 1976 film "Rocky" relies heavily on composer Bill Conti's musical composition "Gonna Fly Now."

Conti composed the entire score for Rocky and its sequels (though he didn't write 'Eye of the Tiger," which depending on your taste is either a shame or a badge of honor).

The 70-year-old veteran film composer will begin his post as the San Diego Symphony's principal pops conductor next year.


Pops concerts blend classical and popular compositions. Pops conductors also get to exercise a little showmanship on stage. Conti plans to tap into his long career as a film and television composer. "If I turn to the audience, it will be as a film composer doing a pops concert." said Conti by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "And I’m going to tell you stuff that’s happened to me over the years that I think is interesting."

He should have plenty of material. He says writing the score for the famous "Gonna Fly Now" montage in "Rocky" was like scoring workout videos. "There’s 10 miles of Sly doing pushups and running and jumping. He’s gonna lose. But in that 10th reel, we want the audience to think he has a chance of winning."

The faint chorus singing on "Gonna Fly Now" is not a choir at all, but Conti's wife and her co-workers. While composing, he called and asked her to bring over anyone from the office who could sing.

Conti also composed the music for the film "The Right Stuff" and for multiple TV shows, including "Dynasty." He served as the conductor for the Academy Awards 19 times.

The position of pops conductor was formerly held by Marvin Hamlisch, who died earlier this year.

Corrected: July 15, 2024 at 1:39 AM PDT
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh and Claire Caraska contributed to this story.