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Music review: L.A. Phil's West Coast, Left Coast festival goes Hollywood

December 4, 2009 |  3:30 pm
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Sooner or later, California musicians, and especially Southern Californians, must come to terms with Hollywood. Some embrace it artistically. Others sell their souls to the studio devil. There are those who dream of a stroll down the Academy Awards aisle. An important few attempt to find a healthy balance between commercial need and artistic well-being.

Leonard Slatkin, who was to have conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s West Coast, Left Coast concert on Thursday, knows them all. He is the son of studio musicians who played Beethoven brilliantly in their spare time as members of the Hollywood String Quartet. Following doctors’ orders not to return to conducting too soon after a heart attack last month, Slatkin canceled his appearance here, but his program, which included three concert works by film composers and one recent score by a young composer Slatkin has championed, went on as scheduled.

Filling in at Walt Disney Concert Hall, composer John Adams, the festival’s curator, conducted recent and new scores by Mason Bates and Thomas Newman. And Jayce Ogren, an emerging young American conductor who recently finished his tenure as the Cleveland Orchestra’s assistant conductor, led short concert pieces by film greats Jerry Goldsmith and Franz Waxman.

Ku4bc0nc Goldsmith’s Music for Orchestra, which opened the program, was premiered by Slatkin with the St. Louis Symphony in 1970. The eight-minute, 12-tone, angst-ridden exercise, vigorously led by Ogren, is reminiscent of the agitated, atonal music that earlier Hollywood émigrés used to make noir dark and sci-fi appropriately strange.

Waxman’s “Tristan und Isolde” Fantasie is just the opposite. It was written for the 1946 film “Humoresque.” What fun the Philharmonic might have had by setting it up with a clip of Joan Crawford drinking alone and offering a toast to love as prelude to Waxman’s marvelously treacly rhapsody on Wagner’s themes for violin, piano and orchestra. High and low cultures licentiously commingle in some arpeggiated alternate universe. Ogren again conducted and Philharmonic associate concert master Bing Wang and pianist Joanne Pearce Martin were the entertaining soloists.

Bates, born in 1977, arrived in Oakland via Virginia and a Columbia-Juilliard training. Though not a film composer, he has two musical lives, one as composer of classical concert pieces, the other as an electronica DJ. The two come together in “Liquid Interface,” which Slatkin premiered with the National Symphony in 2006.

Its four movements are programmatic, moving from glacial ice to water droplets to New Orleans flood to a lazy summer day on Lake Wannsee in Berlin. The orchestra is large, and Bates served as electronica laptop soloist.

The piece has a lot going for it. Providing the processed sounds of Antarctic ice or hurricane winds, the electronics serve as bold atmosphere, but Bates also throws in hip-hopping beats that enliven his more traditional and often lush orchestral writing. William Bolcom came to mind in the “Crescent City” movement with its overlays of Dixieland swing and the nice tune for “On the Wannsee.” 

Minimalist passages were more reminiscent of Adams, but, then, any composer living within a ZIP Code or two of the Berkeley-based Adams is likely to feel his influence. Adams conducted with infectious spirit.

Thomas Newman’s “It Got Dark” for the Kronos Quartet and orchestra, commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic for the festival, is about as West Coast as you can get. Newman is from Hollywood music royalty. He is the son of Alfred Newman and nephew of Lionel Newman (famed Golden Age film composers), brother of David Newman and cousin of Randy Newman. He has written dozens of popular film scores, including “WALL-E.” The Kronos has been after him for a quartet for some time.

Kronos opened the festival last month with a string quartet version of “It Got Dark.”  But Newman knows his way around an orchestra, and the piece is much more engaging blown up. Its eight short movements are meant as evocations of Los Angeles and particularly the West Side of Venice Beach or Rustic Canyon.

To me, having also lived in these places, this could have been music of just about any place. Even some historic recordings of Will Rogers' butler or a poem by Virginia Benton didn’t much help place the music.

But if there is nothing new here, Newman’s writing is comfortable in many worlds and fun to listen to. He played with various Kronos specialties, such as wild solos and Minimalist grooves. And sometimes he played with Hollywood. I especially liked a Steve Reich moment interrupted by something that sounded like it came out of a spaghetti western.

Adams, again, conducted rhythmically, demanding music with verve and the enthusiastic Kronos made the 25 non-neurotic minutes matter. And maybe after 10 nominations, Newman'll finally get the Oscar he deserves one of these days. 

-- Mark Swed

Photo: John Adams (top) conducts the Kronos Quartet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the premiere of Thomas Newman's "It Got Dark" at Walt Disney Concert Hall Thursday night. (below) Jayce Ogren. Credit: Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times

Related stories:

John Adams is feeling festive

Thomas Newman: A member of a musical dynasty writes a postcard about the past

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