Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Don't Quit Your Day Job

December 03, 2009

John Adams, the Kronos Quartet, and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Photo: mine 2009

It would only be fair and appropriate when considering the influence of California on classical music to include music written for films. Indeed, take all the Stravinsky you like, the great majority of "classical music" written in the Golden State has been for Hollywood. Of course, rightly or wrongly, music for films has always been the ugly stepsister in the classical music family. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current festival of California-inspired programming, “West Coast, Left Coast” tackles this issue by taking the indirect route. The first of two shows this weekend features non-movie related music from composers primarily regarded for their film work. It’s a good thought and a necessary recognition. Sadly, it's just not done in a very interesting way.

The show was originally scheduled to be led by Leonard Slatkin until his recent health troubles forced him to withdrawal, leaving things in the hands of festival curator, John Adams, and former Cleveland Orchestra Associate Conductor, Jayce Ogren. In a pinch, the two did the best they could to make a case for the works on offer, with Adams conducting the newer works and Ogren the shorter pieces that opened each set. First was Jerry Goldsmith’s Music for Orchestra. Not a bad eight minutes, but one that poses no threat to his being remembered as the composer for such films as Chinatown. Next up was a somewhat-symphony entitled Liquid Interface from 32 year-old Mason Bates, the current composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (and the only artist not particularly known for film work on the bill). Bates has an interest in electronic music, and the four movement work incorporated significant pre-recorded elements he managed from his own computer onstage. This is not an unusual occurrence for the L.A. Philharmonic. However, Bates’ electronic elements are far more substantial than you might expect incorporating beats and other elements more common in popular dance and electronic music into the structure. There are water drips and drops of course, and while it bubbled along I found I was just as likely to think of it as bad Tan Dun than as "the new millennium." It’s not likely to keep anyone up at night anyway.

After the break was Franz Waxman’s Tristan und Isolde Fantasie. And while I love a ten minute Wagner medley as much as the next guy, the point of this was somewhat lost on me. The last piece on the program was a new L.A. Philharmonic commission, Thomas Newman’s It Got Dark, featuring the services of the Kronos Quartet. The unaccompanied quartet version of this work was premiered earlier in the festival and tonight included the full monty with orchestra and amplified Kronos players. Newman notes the works’ relation to the development of Santa Monica Canyon over the last century, and there is a certain quality of memory in the eight uninterrupted movements. It’s pretty. But I still felt like I’d seen this particular film before. Certainly it may be Oscar-worthy, but whether or not it will survive to be put in somebody else’s 10-minute medley of his works later on may be a long shot.


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