Given the deluge of not-too-promising publicity that ushered in the Los Angeles premiere performance of “Standing Stone,” a legitimate first question might be: is it as bad as one might have feared? The answer, alas, is a resounding affirmative.
Is it even music? In the sense of music as a means of communication of a composer’s state of mind to a body of listeners — Beethoven’s depiction of a beloved brooklet, Dylan’s anathemas on the world around him — “Standing Stone” does not qualify. It makes a handsome package, to be sure: a charismatic showbiz idol creating a painting of a mysterious stone monument on some far-off shore, a poem about it laden with flower-child doubletalk and catchy tongue-twisters (“to reap their ripened wheat?”), and some attempt toward a sonic counterpart to it all.
For the latter, Sir Paul McCartney amassed a collection of musical shards and — like a small boy emptying his pockets — turned them over to four “musical associates” to putty in the cracks and turn out something that might stifle audience protest for 80 minutes without crumbling. This the committee, which includes the highly reputable composer Richard Rodney Bennett, has managed with high skill. “Standing Stone” teems with agreeable bits of other people’s music, but its slickness is all its own.
A musical literate who might through some mishap find himself confronted with the work can keep busy noting the derivations: the burbling flutes from Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe,” the moonrise chorus from Puccini’s “Turandot,” great gobs of Dvorak; you follow its course not with a score but a scorecard. The musical naif will at least note all the bits from favorite bad movie epics; the ghosts of Steiner, Tiomkin and the Newmans lurk close at hand. Near the end an agreeable folkish tune emerges that might pass for a McCartney original; after once through, however, the tune is so heavily treacle-coated, and wrenched into such lurid variations of itself, that it could pass for Brahms.
Conductor John Mauceri, who has demonstrated his own sympathy for the movie-music heritage under more benign conditions, kept matters moving as well as anyone could; the audience numbered an impressive 13,800 and received the evening’s entertainment with something less than rapture. As between-the-movements narrator, veteran actress Gloria Stuart got through the inanities of McCartney’s doggerel without breaking up. What color there was in the event came not from the performance, however, but from the Bowl’s light crew, which bathed the stage at the end in a candy-pink sunrise that sounded the ultimate comment on the falsity of the occasion.
No, that’s not quite true. The ultimate, ultimate comment came from a visiting skunk, which made its presence emphatically known about midway through the evening. Music criticism comes in all shapes and sizes these days.