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Cinema to Symphony: How Movies Become Music

Orange County
Samueli Theater, Orange County Performing Arts Center
03/02/2009 -  
Miklós Rózsa: Toccata Capricciosa for Solo Cello
Erich Korngold: Five Songs for Baritone and Piano, Op. 38: “I Wish You Bliss,” “Wings,” “Old Spanish Song,” “Old English Song,” “My Mistress’ Eyes”
Paul Chirara: Minidoka for Clarinet, Viola, Harp, and Percussion
Bernard Herrmann: Souvenirs de Voyage (Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet)

Timothy Landauer (cello), James Schaefer (baritone), Kristof Van Gryspeer (piano), Benjamin Lulich (clarinet), Robert Becker (viola), Robert Slack (percussion), Mindy Ball (harp), Raymond Kobler (violin), Bridget Dolkas (violin)

(© Pacific Symphony)

The Los Angeles audience for new music by American composers seems remarkably unaware of the excellent American Composers Festival with the Pacific Symphony. The events combine concert music with panel discussions and fascinating introductions by the composers themselves, or the host (renowned music historian and artistic advisor Joseph Horowitz.) The composer and professor of film music composition at UCLA, Paul Chihara presented his astonishing piece for clarinet, viola, harp, percussion and pre-recorded music at tonight’s concert.

This was the ninth annual edition of the festival, this year focused on American film music and concert pieces by film composers. The program of one of the earlier concerts included a new piece commissioned by the festival for film composer James Newton Howard, who has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. An extensive concerto for orchestra, I Would Plant A Tree was Howard’s first composition for the concert stage. Both evenings were well attended by a local audience and a handful of cognoscenti.

This evening’s performance began with Hungarian born Miklós Rózsa’s Toccata Capricciosa for Solo Cello, dedicated to the memory of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. The solo cello piece was beautiful. But the story behind the performance was incredible. Cellist Timothy Landauer had previously played the piece at a competition in Moscow, for an audition at Carnegie Hall, and then as a surprise at a birthday party in a private home in Los Angeles for the composer himself.

Next, Joseph Horowitz introduced the recital of five Viennese art songs by Erich Korngold by screening a clip from the Errol Flynn film, Sea Hawk. In a scene with the Queen of England, one of the characters sings Korngold’s Spanish Song (which was not really Spanish at all). The songs premiered in 1951 in Vienna, and were basically in the style of 19th century lieder. Regardless of being one of the most successful of all Hollywood composers, Korngold’s music was always relentlessly Viennese. These songs were no exception. The first, “I Wish You Bliss,” might be mistaken for as a song that did quite make it into Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin cycle. The others were dark or hearty, with the last taken from one of Shakespeare’s most expressively ironic sonnets.

Paul Chihara’s Minidoka is a multifaceted chamber composition, with a complex history and origin. Based on part of the score from Farewell to Manzanar, a beloved film in California’s Asian-American community, the piece was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in 1996. Chihara’s extraordinary career includes having studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood, and scoring films for the legendary Sidney Lumet. Named Composer of the Year by the Classical Recording Foundation, he was the first composer in residence with Neville Marriner at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and with the LA Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Minidoka is the Native American name of the internment camp in southern Idaho, where Chihara grew up from four to eight years old. The first thing that he says about the experience was that it was not a concentration camp, although it was certainly not an admirable part of American history. For him at that age, it was like “summer camp” for four years. The hard part was returning to the maelstrom of American society as an Asian after the war. It was fabulous to have him show clips from the film and describe how his experiences inform the music. As festival programming, this event was ingenious.

Mixing western classical music, Japanese classical music and American pop music from the forties and fifties, the piece interweaves history and culture across the Pacific in a way that reflects the 20th century with a strength and tenderness usually reserved for writers such as V.S. Naipaul and Jessica Hagedorn. The Japanese royal court musicians, masters of the idiom, performed the prerecorded traditional Japanese music. The fantastical percussion and instrumentation recalled Takemitsu’s film scores for Kurosawa, often echoes of wailing ghosts. The Japanese national anthem, prohibited after WWII, provided melodic material. The overall effect was both cross cultural and existential, an exquisitely poignant musical universe, anchored in the Pacific wake of war and chaos. It gave me shivers and tears. This mélange of East and West prefigured much of the post–classical Asian American music that is prevalent today.

Much of the festival was devoted to the American film composer, Bernard Herrmann, who unlike some of his contemporaries, did not train in Europe. The Clarinet Quintet was certainly a magnificent discovery. Herrmann is best known for his atmospheric scores to Alfred Hitchcock’s films. His concert music, smoky, brooding and infinitely romantic, is cut from the same cloth. His distinctly American voice is uniquely his own, but has a distant relationship to Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler and Copeland. Written in 1967, the Quintet was unquestionably greeted as passé and anachronistic. But the fact that the piece seems to be completely unknown, even to clarinet players, is amazing. A kind of chamber tone poem, with references to J.M.W Turner’s paintings of Venice and the poetry of A.E. Housman, the Quintet is slow and expansive, with the ascending arpeggios of Debussy. Although there is a certain austerity in the quiet ending of each movement, the music is filled with obsession and longing. Herrmann’s use of the “yearning major seventh” chord that is always straining toward the octave was extremely effective.

The first concert of the festival began with one of Bernard Herrmann’s most famous scores, a suite from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In the larger new Segerstrom Hall, the Pacific Symphony screened the film silently and Music Director Carl St. Clair conducted the music live. The scene where Jimmy Stewart discovers Kim Novak for the first time starts with a close up on an eye. Performed live, the film score was striking. A cinematic tone poem, rather than a symphonic score, in a concert context the same music might have been developed into something staggering. But it is certainly among the greatest film music.

The Pacific Symphony also performed the West Coast Premiere of Herrmann’s City of Brass, a radio melodrama. This was the first genre for which Herrmann composed, a kind of oratorio with spoken word and orchestral music. The narrative was taken from A Thousand And One Arabian Nights. The score was angular and suitably dramatic, as was St. Clair’s conducting. The narrator, John David Keller, was an excellent choice for the exalted quality of the language. The poetry and music together were spectacular, a musical version of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” or an operatic adaptation of Pictures At An Exhibition or Scheherazade.

The orchestral concert also included music from Erich Korngold. A score to a clip from the film Kings Row, clearly demonstrated that Korngold’s music was always Viennese, regardless of the American subjects of the films. The theme and variations in classical form accompanied a sequence of American schoolchildren walking in the countryside and skinny-dipping in a creek. The Scherzo from Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp was lively and intimately composed, one of the best pieces on the night.

Miklós Rózsa was represented by his Theme and Variations for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, with concertmaster Raymond Kobler and cellist Timothy Landauer. Also very cinematic, the piece opens with a dark cello solo; then the violin joins on top of a spare orchestra with deep percussion in the background. The virtuosic duet that closed the piece was also a highlight of the festival. The concert ended with Rózsa’s Parade of the Charioteers from Ben-Hur. Largely a brass fanfare in the manner of Kodály, this showstopper almost conducted itself.

But the most important event of that evening was the concert premiere of music by one of the most successful composers working in Hollywood today, James Newton Howard. To begin, the orchestra performed Nothing is Impossible from the recent film Defiance. Again, they screened the clip silently and played the music over the film. A group of Jewish refugees in Latvia flee the Nazi’s through a forest and marsh. Although an action scene, the score is more an interior tone poem than an opera, with a lyrical violin solo performed by Joshua Bell in the recorded score.

The title of Howard’s first composition for the concert stage, commissioned by the Pacific Symphony, is I Would Plant a Tree, a quotation from Martin Luther. Asked what he would do if he knew the world were about to end, Luther said that he would still plant his apple tree. In his pre-concert talk, Howard said that his piece was a concerto for orchestra with no formal structure, and that he wanted to express a childlike enthusiasm about life. The piece opens quietly with bell like notes over long Copeland-like lines on the trumpets and strings. The swirling orchestral textures felt like the music of the “Atlanta School” of composition, and also like something between Mahler and John Williams. There was a broad-shouldered cinematic narrative progression, with anthem-like fanfares and a dramatic allegro climax.

In his closing remarks, James Newton Howard described the evening as the apex of his musical life. He looks forward to writing more concert music, but his process of composition will never change. The festival made a strong case for the importance of American film music on the concert stage.

Thomas Aujero Small



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