Tied to traditional methods and outlooks dating back 200 years (and then some), the institution of the symphony orchestra moved a little further into its own century last week. The conveyance, known as “Filmharmonic” (sorry about that), was the first outing of a newly formed entente between the high-culture, high-flying Los Angeles Philharmonic and its neighbor up the freeway, the Hollywood film industry. The results this first time out: encouraging, promising, delightful.
Whizbang conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, himself a composer in the abstract manner not usually linked to film music, lately makes no secret of his movie-buffdom. His 1996 CD of Bernard Herrmann’s film scores hit the charts. “If the Vienna Philharmonic can play Beethoven and Brahms,” he says, “we should do the same for our local guys.”
The plan is to commission filmmakers and composers to pool efforts in a series of original works worthy of theatrical showing but also of inclusion on symphony-orchestra programs alongside the more standard symphonic fare. The inaugural work smacked of auspicious choices: the alluring, fantastic animation designs of Japan’s Yoshitaka Amano, the resounding, dramatically efficient music of local-guy David Newman, of the musical dynasty that lists father Alfred, uncle Lionel, brother Thomas and cousin Randy.
The resultant “1001 Nights,” a 28-minute mingling of sight and sound, unerringly paced by director Mike Smith, is a swirl of shape and color. Amano, best known in Japan for videogames and sci-fi magazine art, has taken one of the lesser-known “Arabian Nights” episodes (the seduction of the maiden Budou) and turned it into a eye-massaging progression of color and texture: one moment a screen crammed with vibrant, high-contrast imagery, another moment a simple line-drawing on a white background as two loving bodies magically merge into a single being.
Newman’s music — which could pass as a talented offspring of Tchaikovsky’s “Francesca da Rimini,” which preceded it on the Philharmonic program — wisely avoids exact underlining of film action, and becomes instead an added independent line of color in gorgeous counterpoint with the magic on the screen.
Blending film and music in a live-concert setting did, however, have its drawbacks. Symphony musicians need light to read their scores; the Philharmonic installed small lamps on each music stand to get around having to light the whole stage, but there was light leakage that consequently dulled the images on the screen suspended over the players.
It could also be argued, however, that the project gains a certain profile from the orchestral presence, a step toward reality from the usual soundtrack. At the very least the technology this time out proved a major step up from the visual disasters two weeks ago of the Robert Wilson/Philip Glass multimedia fiasco “Monsters of Grace.”
Preceding the film, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen led a selection — somewhat overlong, if truth be known — of music not that far removed from the earmarks of moviedom: John Adams’ rip-roaring, fire-breathing “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” Samuel Barber’s prettily bland Cello Concerto (nicely dispatched by Philharmonic principal cello Ronald Leonard) and the aforementioned Tchaikovsky (which has had a movie career, in fact, as accompaniment to Rex Harrison’s vision of murdering his wife in Preston Sturges’ priceless “Unfaithfully Yours”).
Two more “Filmharmonic” events are set for the Philharmonic’s 1998-99 season: a study by Renny Harlin of wildlife photographer Peter Beard with music by Graeme Revell (Oct. 8-14); and a film by Paul Verhoeven with a Jerry Goldsmith score. (May 20-23).