He’s worked on some of the biggest movies to come out of Hollywood in the last three decades – from Deep Impact and The Mask of Zorro to Avatar and a little film called Titanic.
So it’s a bit of a surprise when composer James Horner admits: “I’ve always wanted to write a ballet.”
And, while he may not have yet fulfilled that specific ambition, he’s come closer to it than ever before with his latest commission, a rare classical composition being premiered in Liverpool this week.
Pas de Deux – the clue is in the title – will be performed by brother and sister Hakon and Mari Samuelsen, appearing with the RLPO and Vasily Petrenko.
“It was written really as two soloists or two dancers, with orchestral accompaniment,” the 61-year-old explains. “I’m thinking sort of visually. It really is a very intimate piece with orchestra.”
It was the Samuelsens, who proved a hit with Liverpool audiences when they performed at last year’s Spirit of Christmas concerts, who went to James with the idea for a new piece.
It’s many years since he wrote anything purely classical – a work called Spectral Shimmers in the 1980s.
“Having come up the academia and classical music (route), when I moved away, I got to a point where I didn’t want to deal with the classical world any longer,” he admits. “I just wanted to be in film.
“So this is the first thing I’ve written after vowing never to return to the classical world.”
It won’t be the last, however, as he’s been asked to create a concerto for four horns for the London Symphony Orchestra.
The American trained at the Royal College of Music before moving LA in the 1970s where he gained a PhD in composition and theory. His film breakthrough came in 1982 when he was asked to write the music for Star Trek II.
Since then, he’s scored something like 100 soundtracks, everything from Aliens and Apollo 13 to Iris, A Beautiful Mind and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He’s the owner of two Oscars (for My Heart Will Go On) and has been nominated another eight times.
Still, it appears it was the right time to turn his composing hand to something different.
He muses: “I think time has gone by and I’ve realised the pros and cons of the film world. I’ve sort of been there and done that.
“Mari and Hakon asked me about writing a piece for them, and I thought it would be a big challenge. Especially as nothing’s been specifically written for that ensemble (violin, cello and orchestra) since Brahms.” Despite working in the hi-tech world of films, James composes not on a computer, or even at a piano, but on a big architect’s table, and in the past has likened composing to painting.
“If I want a certain colour or certain timbre – I think very much in terms of how I’d paint that,” he says.
So what colours does Pas de Deux put him in mind of?
“There’s no specific colour,” he answers. “But it goes through a lot of different textures. It’s a piece that basically goes to all 12 keys. But it won’t necessarily sound like that.
“It does a lot of modulating. I don’t think it’s a particularly hard piece, but the whole blend, the balancing, is going to be key to make it come alive.”
He’s been sitting in on rehearsals, and will be at the Phil to hear the concerto performed in the opening concert of the RLPO’s 175th anniversary season.
“And, in grand tradition, the hall’s not quite finished,” James laughs.
“The paint will be drying as the piece is performed. I love it!”
Pas de Deux is premiered at the RLPO’s Season Opening concert on Thursday.