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Conversation with Bruce Dukov: Happy Birthday Variations and more

Laurie Niles

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Published: July 31, 2003 at 9:35 PM [UTC]

What happens to a person’s head after Juilliard, Dorothy Delay, and more than 1,000 T.V. and movie soundtracks? Hear for yourself at

Bruce Dukov is the king concertmaster of the studios here in LA and has been the concertmaster of the Hollywood Bowl Symphony since 1991. He also has put a sassy new face on several of our favorite violin tunes from the last few centuries.

“They are very irreverent treatments of some of the major violin works,” Dukov said, speaking to me on a break from a recording session at Todd-AO in Studio City, Calif. The one that actually made me burst out with laughter was “For Kreisler’s Sake.” Perhaps it’s because I recently went through several arduous months of teaching this to a teenage student. Or it could be because of the groovy electric guitar, disco beat, the micro-chorus, and the feeling that I was listening to an early-80s T.V. show theme.

Dukov played his arrangement of “Happy Birthday,” (imagine a duel between Paganini and Wieniawski) in New York with Itzhak Perlman for Nathan Milstein’s 80th birthday party. You can actually buy that arrangement over the Internet at . Of course, you and your partner will have to dust off your Paganini chops if you want to play it, even the second violin part.

“Neither violin is in a preferred position,” Dukov said. “The music itself is challenging, you have to be an accomplished player to do it.”

Dukov added another “Happy Birthday” variation for Henri Temianka's 80th birthday. Temianka was in the Paganini Quartet and founded the California Chamber Symphony. Dukov was inspired to write the new variation by Temianka’s recording of the Wieniawski “Scherzo Tarantelle.”

“It’s one of the fastest versions you’ve ever heard in your life,” he said of that recording.

Also on the menu at Dukov’s Web site are: “Meowski,” with excerpts from the Wieniawski Concerto folded into a mewing conglomeration of synth over a funky bass. Or the somewhat manic “Viva Vivaldi,” the “Four Seasons” accompanied by a drumbeat, lightly wailing soprano and weird wandering into Scheherazade that, strangely, fits right in. Or “Sad Song Rondo,” with Saint-Saens' “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” sounding like a slow jaunt on the moon, ending in a duet with a space alien.

It’s hard to believe Dukov has time for such diversion, prolific recording artist that he is. He averages about 60 projects a year. His latest include a Harry Connick Christmas album, a Barbra Streisand album and the “Hulk” movie -- which he hasn't seen yet.

“It’s very disappointing for us,” he said, “we get to see the film in the wrong order. Very rarely do they record it in the order of the film.”

Lately, the life of a studio musician has been a little harder in LA. “Over the last five years, the volume of work has dropped,” Dukov said. Whereas there used to be 60 to 75 films a year, he said, these days it’s dropped off to about 40.

“Now, because markets are so global, we are faced with tremendous competition overseas,” Dukov said. For example, a director may choose to score a film in Hungary. “It may take two weeks to do it there, whereas we’re used to doing it in four days here,” but one has to pay for that kind of efficiency. “The LA studio musicians are the best around. If you get a Rolls Royce, you have to pay.”

Even within the LA studios, the amount of time it takes to record a score varies from composer to composer.

“Some composers are very meticulous,” and take a great deal of time, he said. But time is money, when it comes to hiring an LA recording orchestra. “It can be in two sessions if there are budgetary constraints. That’s hard to do. But we just crank it out, and we have to be very scrupulous about it. We always play the best we can.”

What he means is that they have to be absolutely top-notch sight-readers, as “the best we can” doesn’t allow for practice time. You go to the gig, sit down in front of the music and play for the record. No rehearsals, no music in advance.

“When you are sitting concertmaster, you get a couple of seconds to look at the solo, then the light goes on and you have to start,” Dukov said. “You have to make it sound like you’ve had it for weeks.”

Some of those solos are hard, too. Studio music is not all whole notes and runs, as rumor would have it. For example, Danny Elfman, who composed scores for “Batman” and for “Hulk.”

“He writes impossibly difficult passages for violin,” Dukov said. But it’s beautiful music, even if some of it gets covered up by sound effects, he said. “He also did a magnificent job in ‘Red Dragon,’” Dukov said of Elfman.

Dukov’s first big studio gig in LA was playing for Bruce Broughton’s “Silverado” score. Soon after that was “Cocoon,” by James Horner, has come to be one of Dukov’s favorite film composers. Horner also scored “Titanic,” and “A Beautiful Mind.” He described “A Beautiful Mind” as being an especially interesting project. “At one point he had four pianos on four corners of the stage,” he said. The effect was wonderful.

Dukov said that he has found his life as a recording artist to be fun and fulfilling. Think about it – here is one place where the orchestra plays nothing but new music!

“I love it,” he said. “It’s different all the time – you have variety.”

Okay, I’m going to go listen to “Meowski” again!

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