Credit: Courtesy SB Symphony

For January’s Santa Barbara Symphony edition (the weekend of January 21 and 22), the programming spotlight turns to a pair of composers with strong ties here. Elmer Bernstein, the late, great film composer of note (To Kill a Mockingbird, the jazz-lined Man with a Golden Arm, The Magnificent Seven, Ghostbusters and hundreds more), not only lived in Santa Barbara for years — before the days when long-distance digital workflow was possible for film composers — but collaborated with the Santa Barbara Symphony on several occasions.

Uruguayan composer Miguel del Aguila, meanwhile, lived and worked from his home in Oxnard for many years before moving elsewhere, including a stint in Ojai. He has carved out a respectable place in the pantheon of living composers, with Grammy nominations on his mantle and graced by a particular Latin American flavor — as in his wily, popular piece “Conga Line in Hell.”  

At the Granada Theatre, Del Aguila’s “Concerto for Violin,” featuring violinist Guillermo Figueroa, will be on the program. From the old world, Dvorak’s perennial crowd-pleaser New World Symphony wraps up the show.

Also on the program is Bernstein’s music for the Charles and Ray Eames short film Toccata for a Toy Train, newly arranged by his son Peter, which has detrained in Santa Barbara in the past. The Symphony performed it many years ago, and it was also a featured piece/screening at the 1998 UCSB New Music Festival dubbed “Film Composers: The Whole Picture.” On that occasion, the UCSB-connected Corwin Chair holder composer William Kraft invited Bernstein, David (Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful) Raksin, Leonard (Fantastic Voyage) Rosenman, and other film composers with tentacles in “concert” music, as well.

Before the original piece was showcased at UCSB’s festival, I spoke to Bernstein about this small, if lesser-known jewel in his oeuvre. “That’s a piece I wrote many years ago,” he said. “It was in connection with a very unusual short film made by Ray and Charles Eames, the designers. I established a relationship with them in the mid ’50s and I worked with them until their death, actually. Their grandson, who runs the office, tells me that I scored about 33 films for them. It seems amazing that I did that many. This was one of them, and it was a film they made just on the journey of a toy train.

“Actually, the piece was written first, and then shot back to the music, which is unusual. We had a scenario about what the trains were going to do and about the progress of the journey. There was a small philosophical introduction in which Charles spoke about the difference between toys and models. From then on, we started with creatures and people gathering to get on the train, and then the train starts and it goes on its journey. It comes to its terminal and the whole thing ends.

“Later on, I re-orchestrated it, when Varujan Kojian was the music director of the Santa Barbara Symphony. I re-orchestrated it for him and I conducted it.”

At the end of our interview, Bernstein addressed the question of whether the busy, in-demand film composers would have liked to work more in the concert music field. “My ego doesn’t run in the direction of being a star in the concert hall,” he said. “I was a concert pianist to start in life, with plenty of being onstage alone in the concert hall. So my ego just doesn’t run in those directions. I feel satisfied. I’ve had a good time.”

Santa Barbara Symphony presents “Planes, Trains & Violins” at the Granada Theatre on Saturday, January 21 at 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, January 22, at 3 p.m. For additional information and tickets, visit

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