Movie mavens lured by classical commissions

Earlier this month, Danny Elfman’s ballet “Rabbit and Rogue” was performed by the American Ballet Theater. Next month, Howard Shore’s opera “The Fly” will make its U.S. debut at the Los Angeles Opera, and in February, James Newton Howard will bow an original work for the Pacific Symphony.

This flurry of events, along with recent concertos written by movie maestros David Newman and John Williams, once again begs the perpetual question: Are film composers now welcome in the symphony halls of the world?

The answer seems to be yes and no. The companies that commission new works automatically generate buzz when they announce a work by a film composer, who in turn are thrilled by the opportunity to write for the symphony, ballet or opera. Critics tend to be wary but are hopeful that this new blood will produce something worthwhile.

Shore, speaking by phone from Paris where his opera “The Fly” opened last month, says that after his experience writing more than 10 hours of orchestral and choral music for “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, “I wanted to extend my writing for the voice. Here was a way to work with really incredible artists and the orchestra on a purely musical journey, setting the pace for a night of theater.”

That seems to be the attraction for many film composers: creating music that is the centerpiece of a listening experience as opposed to playing a subordinate role.

“In an opera,” says Emmy-winning composer Lee Holdridge, whose one-act “Journey to Cordoba” has been performed more than 100 times, “you’re in the driver’s seat. The composer gets to set the tone, working closely with the librettist. Yes, you react to the story, but you also make the story happen.”

It certainly isn’t the money. Concert commissions tend to range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars, not the hundreds of thousands that composers can make on studio films.

“Commissions, no matter how great they are, are not going to come up to anything approaching (the fee for) a movie,” notes Oscar nominee (“Silverado”) and 10-time Emmy winner Bruce Broughton, who now spends most of his time writing concert music, including popular concertos for piccolo and tuba.

Elfman describes his yearlong experience with choreographer Twyla Tharp as “the smoothest, easiest collaboration I’ve ever had.” Creating the energetic and musically diverse 45-minute piece was “liberating,” he says.

It was his second major commission, after the 2005 orchestral work “Serenada Schizophrana.” “I’m hungry for all kinds of commissions,” Elfman adds. “I’d like to write another symphonic piece, a chamber piece, a string quartet…”

Critical reaction to most of this work, however, tends to be muted at best, often citing the composers’ film backgrounds as cause for suspicion. Both “The Fly” and “Rabbit and Rogue” received mixed reviews at their Paris and New York openings, as did Elliot Goldenthal’s opera “Grendel,” which was a 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist after its performances in both New York and L.A.

Shore considers the critics irrelevant. “The audience is what we’re interested in,” he says.

“The critics are snobbish, with their own narrow focus,” adds Oscar winner Goldenthal (“Frida”). “It’s almost like they can’t just listen to a piece on its own. There has to be some typecasting along with it.”

There’s some truth to that, concedes Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, adding: “It’s not at all black-and-white. Some film composers are very much trained composers. There is a long tradition of that, back to (Erich Wolfgang) Korngold. A guy like John Williams has complete credibility as a musician.

“The question is,” Swed continues, “do these composers have the ability to sustain the drama in a way that you need to do it in an opera, which is a radically different way of thinking than you need in a film? … Philip Glass can handle both extremely well.”

Notes New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini: “Anything that opens up the field, anything that brings freshness, is fine. Anybody who is snooty about Hollywood really doesn’t know what they’re talking about, because you have to know an awful lot to write good scores.”

Tommasini points out that “there’s always been a crisscrossing” of composers between film and concert hall, including Aaron Copland (who won an Oscar for “The Heiress”) and Virgil Thomson (who won a Pulitzer for “Louisiana Story”). What bothers him is that worthy but less-famous composers may be overlooked for commissions in favor of the marketable Hollywood name.

Both critics, however, admit to a certain curiosity about composers with an individual style. “If Ennio Morricone wrote an opera,” says Swed, “I’d be interested.”

“Thomas Newman: If he wrote an opera,” says Tommasini, “I’d be there.”

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