With February beach weather back again, I watched surfers on my morning walk in Santa Monica; I watched surfers again at my evening Walt Disney Concert Hall beat. "The Reef" concert Tuesday was courtesy of Richard Tognetti, the surfing violinist who leads the Australian Chamber Orchestra and who put together a concert to accompany a surf film.
Surfing and classical music need not be a disconnect. Conductor Kent Nagano is a lifelong surfer, and a good one who occasionally went out with the braver members of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra when he was their music director. Virtuoso French violinist Gilles Apap has toyed with combining his playing with his favorite pastime.
But no classical musician has gone to the surfing extremes that Tognetti has. He is a daredevil with a bow in his hand, and he is a daredevil with a board under his feet. His passion is for outrageous surfing on small, finless boards that allow for balletic moves if you don't kill yourself first.
Nine years ago he participated in an enthralling documentary, "Musica Surfica," with Derek Hynd, the phenomenal Australian surfer who has pioneered the finless phenomenon. Not only did Tognetti combine surfing with Bach and Paganini, but he attempted, with what looks like inspiring success, to entice Australian surfers into his musical world. It is one of the best surfing films in the opinion of one who has watched "Endless Summer" more than once.
At Disney, Tognetti, appearing with his orchestra as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's visiting orchestra series, took this a step further. He put together a soundtrack for a new, silent surf film by director of photography Jon Frank and director Mick Sowry that follows Hynd and another surfer across Australia, the film structured to also follow the sun from starry early morning to starry night.
The waves are epic, and the dancing surfers don't so much ride them as partner with them, adhere to them, become engulfed by them. Surfer and wave as one and the same approaches a spiritual condition, and is a sight to behold. Watching Hynd and his followers, it would be easy to believe that millions of years would have been needed for surfers to have physically evolved from the long-board riders of yore to these male mermaids.
Tognetti matched the finless riders' versatility with his own musical versatility by putting together a diverse playlist of musical accompaniment. It included Rameau, Bach, Ligeti, Alice in Chains, Australian folk and popular music, even George Crumb's anti-Vietnam War string quartet, "Black Angels." The whole thing was quite an operation, and the playing full of excitement.
Yet the total effect proved, for even this easily susceptible ex-surfer, a remarkable bore.
How could that have happened?
Well, the film was a bore, with far too many pretentious slow-motion surfing shots or close-ups of foam and bubbles. The connections between music and the movie screen were unimaginative. A didgeridoo boomed magnificently, for instance, and then a magnificent whale came into predictable view.
Tognetti made a scintillating arrangement of the Fugue from Bach's First Solo Violin Sonata for his string orchestra, but if you looked up at the screen you saw cliché sky and underwater scenes. For Rachmaninoff's schlocky "Vocalise" there were schlocky close-ups of slo-mo foam that looked like snow.
The pop music often worked best. Alice in Chains' "Them Bones" added energy, although a fast movement from Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony did a pretty good job of that, as well. Stephen Pilgram, a northwest Australian folk singer, sang a few characterless ballads. Tasmanian pop singer Craig Johnston belted. More impressive was Satu Vänskä, a Finnish Australian violinist from Japan, who periodically left her chair in the orchestra to sing in the style of an affectingly affectless femme fatale.
A lot of trouble and expense went into this performance, beginning, of course, with making the movie. The stage setup was elaborate with what looked like at least two different sound systems and rows of acoustical baffles, and the result in this notoriously difficult-to-amplify hall was unusually sensitive.
All of which made for a lost opportunity. The sold-out show attracted a new audience not regularly encountered at classical Disney concerts. But few seemed wowed. In a previous Disney visit, Tognetti and the ACO had turned on a more staid crowd, with people cheering their heads off. The soprano Dawn Upshaw happened to be in the audience, and she hooted in her magnificent voice louder than anyone.
For this event, though, pop fans who can be counted on to cheer for almost anything seemed downright polite. An annoying woman near me spent far more time looking at her oversized cellphone than at the film or stage. Will any be back?
Image, badly handled, can harm music. By all rights, "The Reef" should have ended in disaster and that it didn't gives me hope. The closing shots were of a lone surfer against the red sky of sunset, imagery lame even for a fan of "Endless Summer." Against this, ACO played one of the most transcendental movements in all music, the Cavatina from Beethoven's Opus 130 String Quartet. The playing was so beautiful that the Beethoven overpowered the film. What remains in my memory is not the surfer but the sound.
Maybe, just, maybe, Beethoven will stick with a few others as well.