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Critic's Notebook: When music takes center stage

July 5, 2009 |  2:19 pm

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Popular culture and classical music have had different sorts of relationships over the years.Old timers conjure up a time when radio stations supported great orchestras, television networks commissioned opera and Leopold Stokowski could shake hands with Mickey in “Fantasia” and then go home to Garbo.

Classical music has never left the cinema, Broadway stage, airways or gossip columns. But relationships change. For the most part rose-colored glasses have come off.  Once portrayed as stick-figure heroes, classical artists are now more likely shown as deeply flawed misfits, outsiders to an era obsessed by pop-culture like none before it.

Still, they are seen, and seen quite a bit in current films and plays that attempt to engage with the subject of classical music in pop culture terms. Some get it, some don’t. But a trend is afoot.

On screen, we have "The Soloist," in which a homeless man finds a bit of salvation in a cello, and “Departures,” in which a Japanese orchestral musician finds greater salvation stroking corpses than his cello. Francis Ford Coppola’s latest, “Teatro,” reveals what amazing dysfunction an egotistical conductor can bring upon his family.

Two recent plays are fanciful music history lessons – Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations” (a production of which starred Jane Fonda on Broadway) and Itamar Moses’ “Bach at Leipzig” (now at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble).  The Wooster Group’s “La Didone,” a provocatively stylized commingling of stylized Italian Baroque opera and stylized Italian sci-fi, just finished a triumphant run at REDCAT.

Unfortunately, I don’t find the films of particular benefit. Los Angeles Times readers hardly need to be filled in about “The Soloist,” based as it is upon Steve Lopez’s affecting columns about a homeless Juilliard-trained bass player. Nathaniel Ayers is a real outsider artist and an inspired one who has picked up the cello (and quite a few other instruments).

But just about everything about music is misrepresented in the film. Ayers' uneven but charismatic and richly soulful playing is smoothed out into the gorgeous sound of Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong. Concerts in Walt Disney Concert Hall are treated as prissy formal events, which they are decidedly not. Esa-Pekka Salonen gets a dorky remake lest he look hip. Unconscionably, a philharmonic cellist who gave Ayers lessons is turned into a religious zealot on a mission.

Even so, I prefer a musically sanitized Ayers to the misfit in “Departures,” the Japanese feature that won this year’s Oscar for foreign film. After a struggling Tokyo orchestra suddenly goes out of business (actually Tokyo supports more than a dozen orchestras), an unemployed cellist finds a new profession preparing and beatifying corpses for burial.  Scenes jump from him playing sentimental music in the fields among spring blooms to dashing off to funerals.

Coppola comes by his connection to classical music though his late father, Carmine, a flutist in the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. Yet the domineering patriarch in “Teatro” is a clichéd, musically unconvincing character with Toscanini’s fame and an outsized libido. Musically, though, “Teatro” is terrific – the soundtrack is by Osvaldo Golijov and combines Argentine styles with European ones.  

The classics are more conventionally served in “33 Variations” and “Bach at Leipzig,” which have much in common beyond playwrights with Mosaic names. In one, Beethoven struggles to complete his “Diabelli” Variations while a terminally ill, latter-day musicologist struggles to find out why the composer ever bothered with Diabelli’s silly little waltz theme to begin with. In the other, famous German composers and organists compete for a post in Leipzig in 1722. Both plays tackle the issues of form and content, both give descriptions of writing fugues. Both leave an audience charged with music. 

“33 Variations” is less conventional but also less clever, slipping too easily into maudlin sentiment.  “Bach at Leipzig” has been compared to Tom Stoppard's work and, like “Shakespeare in Love,” is a historical fun house. Moses’ wit is inconsistent and his ever-winking irony can be tiresome, but the farce is quite entertaining, and when it gets serious, it serves genius well.

Beethoven and Bach are not exactly outsiders here but they do represent the Other, musical masters who function on a higher level than those around them. Beethoven’s eccentricities are treated as a source of amusement, but his ability to make Diabelli’s waltz transcendent is properly understood to be a source of wonder.

Bach is a musical god who we see only through the eyes of those who understand him, and I found that very moving. Darin Anthony’s production at the Odyssey would do well to trust the text and music more and have actors romp less, but Rob Nagle as the forgotten Johann Friedrich Fasch, the play’s most complex character, was good enough to start me hunting through old Baroque recordings for some of his music.

The Wooster’s Group’s “La Didone,” however, proved the most convincing display of transcendental Otherness. To blend Francesco Cavalli’s anachronistic 17th-century opera “La Didone” with Mario Bava’s anachronistic 1965 film, “Planet of the Vampires,” is obviously eccentric. But something very strange happens.

Obviously, the opera seems completely out of place when it starts up in a cheesy replication of the cheesy spaceship in the film. The brilliant soundscape makes the contrast all the more striking. Opera singers are heard as though they were in an old Venetian theater, while the actors impersonating the film characters (along with bits of the actual film soundtrack) sound as if they might have in a funky ‘60s Venetian cinema. 

Eventually, things began to blend, dramatically and sonically. By the end – the production follows the movie (which plays throughout on monitors only the actors can see) about creatures who crash on a dying planet -- the opera about Dido and Aeneas begins to dominate. Ultimately, Cavalli, which is performed mostly in period style, feels more present than the film.

Wooster director Elizabeth LeCompte’s genre-bending is outrageously original for Baroque opera yet it is also historically appropriate. Early opera was its own genre-bending art form. Combining theater and music in new ways, it frequently played fast and loose with historical and literary source material.  In “La Didone,” Dido does not self-immolate on a pyre when Aeneas leaves her; instead, she takes up with another adoring king and lives happily ever after.

In LeCompte's production irreverence becomes a focusing device. To get past all that sci-fi nonsense, a listener must concentrate extra hard on the opera.

Pop culture is not wrong in looking at classical art as outsider art. When the pop people get reverent, they usually get sappy. It’s best to butt heads. Like elementary particles accelerating into each other, the art forms will more often than not blow up in your face.  But now and then a brand-new particle emerges. That’s what “La Didone” is. 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Hai-Ting Chinn as Dido in the Wooster Groop's production of Cavalli's "La Didone" at REDCAT. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times

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