For Robert Townson, the upcoming concert Pictures at an Exhibition: The Paintings of Bob Peak is a labor of love he’s been dreaming about for several decades.

“It was about 25 years ago that I had the first inspiration for the idea of what this concert is,” Townson explains, “thinking how cool it could be to create an event celebrating the artwork of Bob Peak and the music of the legendary composers who wrote the scores for the movies whose posters he made.”

Even if you don’t immediately recognize the name Bob Peak, you’re probably aware of his work. Peak was the one of the most successful and influential illustrators of the 20th century, creating iconic posters for such films as West Side Story, Superman, Apocalypse Now, and Camelot. His other notable works include a series of paintings about the Olympics commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service for a line of stamps, as well as 45 cover illustrations for Time magazine. “The breadth of his career is almost inconceivable,” Townson admits.

And nobody is more qualified to honor that career than Robert Townson, the most prolific film-music producer in the world and a former collaborator of Peak’s. Townson has released over 1400 albums to date, and he’s still proud to note that one of his very first releases featured as cover art a portrait of composer Jerry Goldsmith by Peak. Since then, Townson has wanted to celebrate the life and work of the artist, who passed away in 1992.

What he’s come up with is an innovative concert that showcases Peak’s artwork while joining it with music both immediately recognizable and brand new. The first half pairs Peak’s movie posters with the unforgettable scores from the films they represent, composed by legends such as Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Williams. 

The second half combines ten of Peak’s paintings with original pieces by some of the most acclaimed composers today, most of whom are friends and collaborators of Townson’s, including Bill Conti (Rocky), Mychael Danna (Life of Pi), and Marco Beltrami (A Quiet Place). The line-up also includes Michael Abels, who is renowned not only for his film scores for Get Out, Nope, and Us, but is also a 2023 Pulitzer Prize winner for co-writing the opera “Omar.”

Pictures at an Exhibition: The Paintings of Bob Peak is a collaboration between Robert Townson Productions and the Abu Dhabi Festival, and will be conducted by Grammy-winning Maestro Leonard Slatkin. The event will be held on June 14 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Tickets are available here.

Awards Focus spoke to Robert Townson and Michael Abels about their admiration for Peak’s work, finding creative inspiration in limitations, and putting together such a unique event.

Awards Focus: Robert, to begin with, can you walk us through your first encounters with Bob Peak’s art and when you began to work with him or use his work professionally?

Robert Townson: Absolutely. My awareness of Bob Peak goes back to literally as I was first discovering the music of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith for the first time, because both Peak and Goldsmith worked on Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And Peak and John Williams both did work for the 1978 Superman movie. And those were the two films that introduced me to all three of these giants and introduced my life to the dual passions of artwork and music. And of course, music has been the primary focus of my career, but artwork has always played a major role as well.

Focusing specifically on Bob Peak, the breadth of his career is almost inconceivable. He was such a giant artist. One of his first movie posters was for West Side Story. And then came My Fair Lady, Camelot, Funny Girl, Apocalypse Now, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Hair.

I mean, it’s just endless, all the classic films he worked on. And he had an enormous career outside of Hollywood. He worked for the United Nations, he worked for the Olympics, he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He had 45 of his paintings used on the cover of Time Magazine. So almost an entire year of Time covers were Bob Peak paintings.

At the very beginning of my career, when I was producing my first few albums, one of my earliest recordings was for Jerry Goldsmith conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. And at that time, I reached out to Bob Peak to do a painting of Jerry Goldsmith for the front cover. And I heard back from him and he was having a scheduling difficulty.

He loved the idea of the project. He said, just give me a couple of days to think about it. And I found out he also had an invitation from Michael Jackson to work on the cover for Moonwalker at the time. And so he had to choose one project or the other. I will be eternally grateful that he chose mine and Bob Peak did a painting of Goldsmith for the album. And, you know, to work with him and Jerry on the same project when I was like 20 or 21 years old, it was such an honor.

Over the years, I licensed so many of Bob Peak’s gallery paintings for different album covers of mine. It was about 25 years ago that I had the first inspiration for the idea of what this concert is, thinking how cool it could be to create an event celebrating the artwork of Bob Peak and the music of the legendary composers who wrote the scores for the movies whose posters he made, like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams.

And then taking it a step further and having ten different composers each write an original movement inspired by Peak’s paintings that are not already connected with iconic music. And in so doing, open up a whole new way to celebrate an artist in modern times, and to involve so many of my wonderful composer friends to be inspired and just kind of swing for the fences. And it’s the best of all worlds to be premiering at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Leonard Slatkin conducting. It’s almost difficult for me to believe it’s finally happening.

AF: How did you and Michael come to collaborate on this project? 

Townson: I was reaching out to ten composers. Now, many of them were composers who have been friends that I’ve worked with for years, such as Bill Conti and Mychael Danna. Michael Abels and I have kind of gotten to know each other and become friends at concerts that we’re both involved with or just attending in Los Angeles. And then I attended Michael’s L.A. premiere of his opera “Omar,” which absolutely blew me away. I was so knocked out by his composition, and was so happy for him for having produced such a monumental work.

And I knew walking out of that opera that I wanted desperately to invite him to be part of something we could work on together. And so if he is available and has the time to be part of this project, I would love this piece to be the first thing we get to do together.

AF: Michael, how were you inspired by Peak’s painting of Jesse Owens for your musical piece? And what was your relationship to the work of Bob Peak?

Michael Abels: Well, first of all, I love hearing Robert talk about his experience with Peak’s work and how he came to it. And often in the projects I take on, I end up learning a huge amount about some subject that I never was aware of. And what I have learned is that I’ve been a fan of Bob Peak my whole life as well. I just didn’t know his name. And I remember those paintings from those great iconic films because they go with music that I’ve admired my entire life. And I also remember some of the Time covers and definitely the postage stamps from the Olympics, which is the series from which the Jesse Owens painting is taken. 

I remember when that came out and when Robert told me that the subject was Jesse Owens, I think I was sold at that moment because he’s such an iconic figure and completely worthy of musical commemoration and celebration. And the Peak painting captures him just in mid-flight, I think of his medal-winning long jump in 1936. So I was excited that he asked me, and I was a yes, I think, from the first conversation. And for me, after that, the challenge was just living up to the legacy of both Owens and Peak, and making sure that the music was fitting for such a great athlete and such a great artist.

AF: How does the process of writing a composition inspired by a painting differ from writing a film score or an opera? Do you feel there’s more freedom or a different kind of freedom in that process?

Abels: Yeah, I’d say you have to look at each project and understand what the limitations are. And that’s actually a good thing, because you need a box to determine how you’re going to draw your painting, so to speak. And if your canvas had no edges, you would never know when you were done. So the first thing is that music takes place in time and time is the canvas of music. So you arbitrarily draw yourself a canvas when no one has given you one. And so I assumed the piece is probably four and a half or something minutes.

And then you figure out what kind of an emotional arc you want the music to have. That’s not enough time to do an entire summary of someone’s life. But I certainly wanted to capture the experience of seeing an athlete so powerful as to be able to leave the ground of their own will and make it seem like they’re flying. And Owen himself has a great quote when they asked him, “what’s the secret to your technique?” And he said, “I try to make sure my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible.” Which is genius in its obviousness, but also in its brilliance. 

So for me, the piece needed to have both a sense of power – sprinting takes incredible power – but it also had to have a feeling of being lighter than air. And so for those reasons, I felt like the music needed to be epic in a way that’s inspiring to the soul. And I only hope that I’ve managed to capture some of that in about four minutes.

Townson: I would add that Michael absolutely captured all of that in his piece. And I can’t wait to hear our extraordinary orchestra really bring it to life. It was important to me that all of the composers really had the opportunity of connecting personally through the paintings. I didn’t view any of this as just a gig for anyone. I wanted it to be a passion project that they all cared deeply about.

AF: How did you decide on the set list for this concert, both in terms of the pre-existing musical scores for the films and choosing some of the other composers that you commissioned for the new pieces?

Townson: It was so difficult. It definitely went through a process. For the pre-existing works, there were certain scores that I knew instantly had to be part of it. Most of all, Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and John Williams’ score for Superman — I knew they had to be included for introducing me to Bob Peak.

Then, for Bob’s career to have begun with West Side Story, I mean, how do you not include that? And then I reached out to the Leonard Bernstein estate, because it was specifically the film overture that I wanted to perform in the concert, since it’s the movie that Bob Peak worked on. So, I didn’t want to just represent it by a movement from the Broadway show. I wanted specifically the film overture arrangement from the film.

So, I contacted the Leonard Bernstein estate, and I heard back from them literally the next day,, saying, “this is so exciting and we’re on board. We have always loved Bob Peak’s work for that movie.”

But the bigger ask was inviting each of the composers for the new pieces. And, the whole project, in that way, it is so personal. It means so much to me because it’s not just ten composers. It’s ten composers who are dear, dear friends and have been part of my life, in some cases, for the last 30 years. For example, Marc Shaiman and I go back to City Slickers and Addams Family Values. And I invited Marc to write a piece for a beautiful painting that Bob Peak created of Audrey Hepburn that was not specifically for My Fair Lady, but just him being inspired by her face and doing kind of a gallery-type drawing of her. And I showed that to Marc and he’s like, oh my goodness, yes, I’m on board.

And this entire project is a massive international co-production between myself and Robert Townsend Productions and the Abu Dhabi Festival. And I’m so grateful to them for sharing in this production with me and really helping to make it possible. And, you know, Her Excellency Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo, the founder and artistic director of the festival, really wanted to continue this partnership after our success with the Symphony of Three [an interfaith concert bringing together composers representing Christianity, Islam, and Judaism].

AF: For our readers who might not be 100% familiar with this concert, how will the art be displayed in conjunction with the music?

Townson: For the first half, there will be a huge screen over the orchestra displaying videos of the creative process that led to his ultimate finished poster for a particular movie, and sometimes also including some alternate ideas that Peak came up with. And then in the second half, the paintings that specifically inspired the music will be on the screen over the orchestra, just letting everyone experience it and be moved by the image of the painting and hearing the music. It’s about showing the artwork and not trying to get fancy with it. Just the shared experience of viewing the paintings that have inspired the music while listening to an incredible orchestra with Leonard Slatkin performing these extraordinary compositions.