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Review: Pacific Symphony in Hollywood

February 27, 2009 |  5:00 pm


Hollywood’s “Golden Age” was, of course, black and white.  What gave the pre-World War II talkies their “color” was their ornate, even gaudy, music.  Many of those scores were the product of émigré composers and their American followers, who wrote in a reactionary tuneful, tonal, lush Wagnerian style.  Although the language of a Europe that was no more, it became the sound of American cinema.

That, to some extent, is the theme of the Pacific Symphony’s American Composers Festival this year, taken from a chapter in “Artists in Exile,” the latest intriguing book by the orchestra’s artistic advisor, Joseph Horowitz.  The festival began Thursday night at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa with a long program by both European and American film composers of yore.  The odd man out was James Newton Howard, who demonstrated how the “Golden Age” sensibility has filtered down to the Hollywood of today.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (schmaltzy Austrian), Miklós Rózsa (Old World Hungarian) and Bernard Herrmann (cantankerous New Yorker) were from a classical music tradition and bitterly complained that their success in Hollywood came at the expense of high-art respect.  These three composers are now in fashion, programmed not only for pops programs but by symphony orchestras as well.

Thursday’s program, which Carl St.Clair conducted with disarming gusto, was smartly designed to show how styles filtered from concert hall to celluloid.  A suite from Herrmann’s score for “Vertigo,” the Hitchcock classic, was paired with a work he wrote for radio.  Korngold’s music from “Kings Row” -- the 1942 film in which Ronald Reagan has both legs amputated and wakes up from surgery asking “Where’s the rest of me?” -- went up against a movement from his Symphony in F sharp.  Rózsa was represented by “Ben-Hur” and a movement from a double concerto he wrote for violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. 

The Symphony in F sharp was widely dismissed as cheap when it premiered in Vienna in 1954, because it harked back to scores such as “Kings Row.”  Today, were Korngold to hear the “Star Wars” music, he might well exclaim, “Where’s the rest of me?”  John Williams created the Williams style, in considerable part, through skillful musical surgery on Korngold.

Herrmann was a master of unsettling mood. Equally adept at smoldering and violent eroticism, he classed up films by making them disturbing.  St.Clair’s performance of the Suite from “Vertigo” was over the top in a sensually good way, bringing a blank screen to life.  But “The City of Brass,” which followed, proved a peculiar rarity.  Commissioned in 1937 by the experimental radio program “Columbia Workshop,” it features a narrator reading from “The Arabian Nights,” with a brawny orchestra in the background.  John-David Keller was the restrained but effective narrator.

Rózsa’s concertos have been getting a new life on recordings, which is probably just a fad.  These post-World War II works are so much of another era that even in their day, they sounded like '50s films rehashed (and Rózsa wasn’t beyond then rehashing a concerto back into a film).  Concertmaster Raymond Kobler and principal cellist Timothy Landauer were the capable soloists, but the enthusiasm in this theme and variations movement came from St.Clair.  And he did make the “Parade of the Charioteers” from “Ben-Hur” rousing.

For Howard, a scene from the current film “Defiance” was shown with the soundtrack turned off and his score played live.  That was followed by the premiere of “I Would Plant a Tree.”  The title comes from Martin Luther, who said that even were the world to end the next day, “I would still plant my apple tree.”  Unlike some of his Hollywood forebears, Howard is new to the concert hall.  He used the resources of a “co-orchestrator,” Conrad Pope.

The piece begins with atmospheric shimmering and twinkling and 22 minutes later returns to it.  The musical style, harmonic and timbral, is of the big screen.  A kind of Williams-inspired filmic filigree (of which Korngold is grandfather) is common in the high winds.  The two climaxes are cinematic.  There is one too many, but the second is not predictable. 

There is a lot here for the current crop of neo-Romantics to envy, but 22 minutes is the time frame of a Bruckner movement and was maybe too ambitious for a first major concert work.

The Pacific Symphony has multimedia ambitions, and it also has its work cut out for it.  Film projections were badly washed out by ambient light. “Kings Row” was poorly adapted for a wide (and too small) screen.  Amplification also proved inadequate.  But we’re used to worse at many movie houses.  And the orchestra sounded terrific.

-- Mark Swed

Pacific Symphony, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.  8 p.m. Sunday and (in abbreviated form) 3 p.m. Sunday. $24-$99. (714) 556-2787 or www.pacificsymphony.org 

Photo: Carl St.Clair conducts the Pacific Symphony while a clip from the film "Defiance" is shown with its soundtrack turned off. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (5)

To be frank, whatever one may think about the aesthetics of 'Golden Age' filmscores, there was a very quick development by greats like Andre Previn (who wrote not just jazz, but very fine dramatic scores as well), Alex North, Goldmsith, Herrmann etc. to more modern styles within a very short period.. But today's recent style of film composition has more to do with short deadlines, limited budgets, and directors' unmusical obsessions with 'temp-track' (pre-edited temporary tracks laid down before the composer ever gets there). To be seduced by this as a definitive 'modern aesthetic' of scoring is to be ...well... naive. Does the critic simply sniff the wind to see what will go sown well with his readers?

In concert terms, what good does it do to suggest the Golden Age composers' concert works are somehow 'reactionary'? Are they good works or no? Do they enhance us or not? Are they well structured and evocative, or are they not? Why put these tedious crosses on the backs of the composers? How many works are genuinely original today? Why are Rozsa. Korngold, Herrmann, 'a fad'? Maybe music-criticism is a fad... a declining one. KLet's hope good music doesn't decline with it.

But I'd be very interested in examples of where Miklos Rozsa ever allegedly channelled his concerto material or themes into filmscores. This was true of Korngold, but never Rozsa. A composer has a style, uses intervals, harmonics, even bridge passages, etc. that are common to his works ... trade-marks. That's called STYLE. If you denounce these as cliches, then where does it stop? Perhaps a composer should never use the same NOTE twice in his career?!!!

Mr Swed is probably one of these 'experts' who still look with disgust at film music and condemn every (classical) composer who ever worked for the cinema. Korngold was one of the great victims of this attitude and only because of Charles Gerhard the Austrian gained new life.
Rozsa and Herrmann both suffered from the same attitude and only recently are being re-evalued.

Swed's one is really a poor, pseudo intellectuel attitude- based on the fear of not taken seriously when aknowledging his great error in ignoring composer like Herrmann, Rozsá, Korngold (and Waxman, Goldsmith etc etc).

Calling the Rozsá recordings a fad is as stupid and narrow minded as one can imagine

Geert Custers
Venray The Netherlands

Like too many reviewers, Mark Swed seems far more concerned with his own reputation than those of the composers he's reviewed here. To actually praise these works of film music (and the above are some of the finest scores ever to be written for a film; by disparaging them, Swed automatically dismisses all the lesser scores and composers ever to work in Hollywood, saving him the immense time and trouble of having to name the other, inferior perpetrators and their "crimes." To appropriate the memorable phrase from "Casablanca" -- music by Max Steiner, who wasn't represented at the above concert -- all "film composers" are no more nor less than the Usual Suspects) would subject Swed to the worst ordeal imagined by any "critic": the disapproval of his peers. The audience he serves doesn't matter any more (if it ever did); they never matter. It's his COLLEAGUES (read: competitors) who must be served, and it would never occur to Swed or any of them that this incestuousness guts the very core of criticism, rendering it moot and, worse, utterly disingenuous.

It does make one wonder what Swed thinks of, say, Aaron Copland and Sergei Prokofiev, two of the 20th century's most revered composers. And what about Shostakovich, who wrote more music for films than any other medium (granted, he and Prokofiev were never corrupted by the money of Hollywood's despotic moguls, only by promises from that obviously lesser despot, Josef Stalin that there would be no liquidation or trip to the Gulag...this year)?

E.W. Korngold came to call his film scores "opern ohne zu singen," "operas without singing," as he found them just as open to telling a story in music as the older, more venerated art form in which he spent the first part of his career. So it was with Rózsa, Herrmann and the rest of those kappellmesiters of Hollywood's so-called Golden Age. And that's what's missing from film music today: the knowledge of, ability to, or interest in telling a story in music as images and words unfold onscreen. Today's filmmakers (and audiences) desperately need to go back to school, and so do the critics. Are you listening, Mr Swed?

Funny, I thought these smart-alec, contemptuous dismissals of all film music (simply because it is film music, no matter how good) was on the way out with the more enlightened, more reasoned and reasonable approach of the last 20 or 30 years---but obviously not. In fact reading this piece I was taken back to many similar snobbish, self-satisfied "reviews" written in the 50's, when Rozsa, Korngold and others were invariably dismissed as "the swimming pool set" whenever they attempted to present a serious work, with almost nothing said about the actual composition, its themes or development. Personally all I take from the present "review" is glibness and smugness; if I didn't know the composers in question I would learn nothing about them from Mr. Swed's piece, nor have any better idea of whether their style might be something I'd want to sample. So clearlty Mr. Swed has not done his job as a music critic in conveying in any detail the type and quality of the music he's discussing. Very poor effort, Mr, Swed. About 2/10.

As for Rozsa "rehashing a concerto back into film", Mr. Swed is clearly confused by the fact that Rozsa once used parts of his Violin Concerto for a film ("The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes"), albeit only at the director's request. So you've got it around the wrong way. Mr. Swed. Please correct yourself in print, and then apologise profusely for letting down those of your readers (and that's all of them, I assume) who had hoped to read a balanced, unprejuduced review and learn something useful about the music under consideration.

Swed's making another self-nomiated bid at a Pulitzer before the whole critic gig vaporizes. Honesty and rigor have nothing to do with his writing.


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