Music review: L.A. Phil provides PST with ‘The Hollywood Sound’
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One of the hopes (at least one of my hopes) for Pacific Standard Time has been that it would draw attention away from the movies. The world needs to know (and, maybe we do, too) that a vibrant post-World War II West Coast arts scene too long lived in the shadow of Hollywood.
Isn’t Walt Disney Concert Hall, after all, supposed to have replaced the Hollywood sign as the new symbol of L.A.? Well, tell that to the Museum of Contemporary Art. The graphic for its PST show “Under the Big Black Sun” is the Hollywood sign (in mirror image), and “Naked Hollywood” is the companion exhibition. Tell it to Disney (the hall, that is), as well. Across the street from MOCA, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s PST offering Thursday night was “The Hollywood Sound.”
The idea behind a program about the Hollywood sound -- for which Thomas Wilkins, the principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, made his Disney debut -- was perfectly sound. It demonstrated how scoring for films fascinatingly changed between 1945 and 1980, the putative dates for PST.
The program began with Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who helped create the Old World symphonic soundtrack. First was the splendid proto-'Star Wars’ 1942 fanfare for “Kings Row.” It was followed by a tortured but bland cello concerto, with Zuill Bailey as the glowing soloist. Korngold had based the concerto on a shorter one he had contributed to the 1946 Bette Davis rarity, “Deception.”
The evening then demonstrated how Alex North jazzed up film scores in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” how Henry Mancini added pop pizazz to movies like “Charade” and how Jerry Goldsmith brought a daring touch of Modernism to “Planet of the Apes” and “Chinatown.” John Williams, in music from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and a ‘Superman’ encore, put it all together by modernizing Korngold.
Wilkins may have talked too much, covering the same ground that the film music scholar Jon Burlingame had in the pre-concert talk. But Wilkins conducted with an admirably restrained elegance, treating the music seriously. The L.A. Phil played with class. It has an innate feeling and flexibility for this music the way the Vienna Philharmonic has for Mozart.
But by myopically concentrating on the movies, the orchestra missed an important opportunity to examine the significant, and sometimes uncertain, role that Hollywood has played in the larger musical life of L.A.
For that we would have needed the inclusion of Franz Waxman, who created and personally funded from his film score earnings the Los Angeles International Music Festival, where dozens of scores by Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich and others received their American premieres.
David Raksin (best known for “Laura”) was not included. He was a Schoenberg pupil and a supporter of new music, as was another Schoenberg pupil, Leonard Rosenman, who musically accompanied Raquel Welch in ‘Fantastic Voyage’ with a 12-tone row. Hollywood, furthermore, played a role in creating audiences for avant-garde and early electronic music, which found its way into ‘50s sci-fi films.
And what of the Hollywood composer and outstanding jazz pianist who went on to have a major career as conductor and composer of concert music, and who eventually became music director of the L.A. Phil? Absurdly, André Previn, who left in a huff, remains the name unspoken by the orchestra. But his score for ‘The Subterraneans,” a 1958 look at the Beat generation, perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the young Beat artists who helped create a West Coast School in the late ‘50s.
Then there is the darker side of Hollywood, well worth considering. Pictures had the power to suck the creative life blood from those who became addicted to the Hollywood lifestyle. Raksin, Rosenman and, especially, the celebrated Bernard Herrmann were not contented composers.
But that’s a different kind of concert. “The Hollywood Sound” was a night of comfortable and comforting nostalgia. Herrmann did get a three-minute nod Thursday, with his proto-Minimalist overture to “North by Northwest,” but that’s next to nothing compared with, say, the full Herrmann CD that Esa-Pekka Salonen once made with the orchestra. Elmer Bernstein was also represented by a suite from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where Rachmaninoff (who emigrated to L.A.) meets the Old West.
Another missed connection would have been to further explore where Goldsmith got his idea for “Chinatown.” He must have known the Balinese-inspired music by Colin McPhee, who taught at UCLA in the ‘60s, when he asked for four harps and four pianos. The L.A. Phil saved money with pairs of pianos and harps, which somewhat tamed the exoticism. But James Wilt’s bluesy trumpet solo was terrific. RELATED:
-- Mark Swed