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Review: Pacific Symphony in Hollywood

February 27, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Pacific

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

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