Entertainment & Arts

Elliot Goldenthal’s new Pacific Symphony piece is all about timing

Elliot Goldenthal
Elliot Goldenthal’s new Symphony in G-sharp minor will anchor a series of concerts devoted to film composers by the Pacific Symphony.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Elliot Goldenthal descended a swooping staircase in the three-story urban aerie just off Union Square that he calls studio and home.

“I got it cheap 25 years ago,” he explained of the space, which he shares with his longtime partner, director Julie Taymor. “No one wanted it. All the plumbing had to be redone.”

The views are killer — panoramas of the downtown Manhattan skyline. Outside, the rain was coming down in cold sheets.

The Oscar-winning composer of “Frida” and nearly 30 other movies looked disheveled and was in a somewhat introspective mood. As he explained in an interview at the expansive kitchen table, he has been busy scoring a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — a filmed version of a stage production that Taymor recently directed at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.


Another non-Hollywood project was also weighing on his mind — a new orchestral work that will have its world premiere with the Pacific Symphony in Costa Mesa on Thursday.

The 22-minute piece, Symphony in G-sharp minor, will provide the centerpiece for a series of concerts devoted to film composers. The program, running through Saturday, includes existing works by three other Oscar winners — John Williams, James Horner and Howard Shore.

Goldenthal was commissioned by the Pacific Symphony to write the piece, his second collaboration with the orchestra after his Vietnam War-inspired oratorio, “Fire Water Paper,” which premiered in 1995.

He described the new piece as a study in contrasts, with the first movement being contemplative and gentle, the second part rhythmically aggressive.


“I wanted to achieve the illusion of 22 minutes seeming like a full evening. The two movements are designed to mess with time,” the composer explained, speaking in slow, measured tones.

Goldenthal said he composed the piece in a monthlong burst of creativity. “Once I get started, I don’t quibble with my own brain,” he said.

Carl St.Clair, the music director of the Pacific Symphony, said he wanted the piece to be short to increase its chances of being performed by other orchestras. “In many ways, it’s easier to have a world premiere than a second performance,” he said in a separate interview.

Goldenthal recently turned 60, and matters of age were on his mind.

“When you reach your 50s or 60s, you say to yourself that you have 10 or 20 years left to write your personal work. We all can’t be like Elliott Carter,” Goldenthal said, referring to the late American composer who was active past the age of 100.

Goldenthal studied with composers Aaron Copland and John Corigliano and broke out onto New York’s music scene in the ‘70s, writing classical works as well as pieces for theater and dance.

It wasn’t until his mid-30s that he started working regularly in film. He has scored two “Batman” movies, two movies by Michael Mann and five by Neil Jordan.

His most enduring collaboration has been with Taymor, with whom he was worked regularly for stage and screen. His Mexican-influenced score to Taymor’s “Frida” won him an Oscar in 2003.


Taymor was busy editing “Midsummer” but said in a later phone interview that Goldenthal is expanding on the music he wrote for the original stage production that opened in November.

“He never wants to step on the language — he’d be the first to say it’s too loud,” she said.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shot the stage production using multiple cameras, and producers hope “Midsummer” will be released in theaters.

Taymor described Goldenthal as a classical composer who happens to do some film work. “He wants to do movies but he doesn’t live in Hollywood. … He’s not a big self-promotion-type person,” she said.

For Goldenthal, composers who work in the movies still get the short end of the stick when it comes to critical assessment.

“It’s worse than a stigma,” he said. “If I had a pen name and it was a female Icelandic name, and they heard my classical works, it would be judged by a different set of parameters. This woman from Iceland writes unusual music, they would say. I don’t think I would get the same review.”

Last year the composer released an album of his recent work, “The Stone Cutters,” for string quartet and an album of his “Othello Symphony” — a piece derived from his 1998 ballet score for choreographer Lar Lubovitch.

Goldenthal described his movie scores as “assignments” but acknowledged that they could be creatively fulfilling. He didn’t spare words about jobs he found frustrating.


When asked about his score for “Heat,” Mann’s 1995 Los Angeles crime saga, the composer described working on the movie as “horrible … Michael kept changing his mind about the music.” He still admires Mann as a director, and they later collaborated on the 2009 movie “Public Enemies.”

His future work includes a potential collaboration with Taymor on a screen version of their ‘80s stage piece “The Transposed Heads,” based on the Thomas Mann novella. He said he is also waiting for his next “Grendel-sized” inspiration, referring to his epic opera “Grendel,” directed by Taymor, that had its premiere with Los Angeles Opera in 2006.

Goldenthal said he does most of his composing in his New York apartment and at the couple’s home in Mexico, where, he said, “you might get interrupted by the sound of a jaguar.”

As he returned to his work, Goldenthal stopped to listen to the sounds of a piano coming from a neighbor.

“That’s Shostakovich,” he said, identifying the composer. “I love that — to be able to live surrounded by music. It’s great, isn’t it?”


Symphony in G-sharp minor by Elliot Goldenthal

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Prices: Vary by performance

Information: or (714) 755-5799

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