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A Little Night Music

Photo by David Bazemore

The film scores of Nino Rota constitute a body of lyric excellence that carries forward the dramatic vernacular of his Italian forebears into the medium of his own time. I say this, of course, with some trepidation; I have only examined one of his 12 operas, although I am currently completely under its spell thanks to the performance I experienced last week in Santa Barbara. But I hold a special place for the films he has helped to create — the Fellini collaborations like Amarcord and 81/2 in which the music does, indeed, forge a texture that puts me in mind of the fully musical works of composers a century and more ago, and the huge Verdian melodramas like Visconti’s The Leopard (finally out on DVD) and Coppola’s Godfather epics, which transcend not only their cinematic medium but even their language.

At Santa Barbara the students of the Music Academy of the West produced an actual Nino Rota opera, his 1955 setting of that grand old farce-comedy The Italian Straw Hat, which lingers for most of us in the treasurable 1927 silent film produced by René Clair. The film is still around on VHS, or was the last time I looked; unfortunately, it comes with an endless, obtrusive honky-tonk piano track that you just have to turn off. Rota’s music also goes like the wind, but in a superior direction: a nonstop pastiche of comedic giggle, Offenbach stirred into Rossini and some grand sourness from Rota himself. (Remember the clowns’ dances in 81/2?) The Santa Barbara production was similarly airborne. Frank Corsaro’s direction set wings to everything; a 16-member cast handled the pitter-pattering Italian text (or seemed to, to these alien ears) to the manner born; even Randall Behr, distantly remembered — if at all — for his leaden baton at the Los Angeles Opera, managed a performance full of grace, wit and authentic accent. I would not miss these once-a-year productions at the Music Academy, if only to deliver a big, loving hug to Marilyn Horne, the school’s current director, and tell her how right she is to be proud of what her school, with its superior faculty, has accomplished.

 

Nino Rota’s music hung light in the summer air; so, two nights later, did Dvorák’s, at the Hollywood Bowl. If you question the connection, try this: The sad trumpet tune for the waif Gelsomina in Fellini’s La Strada is an exact haircut off the slow movement of Dvorák’s String Serenade, Opus 22. (You see what happens to people’s minds on hot summer days?) My readings in Sir Donald Tovey, as I have noted in this space more than once, guide me through the music of Antonin Dvorák, through the particular and personal dimensions of his grandeur, “the sublimity which is utterly independent of the size and range of an artist’s subject.” These words apply, of course, to Rota’s music as well; his Italian Straw Hat is a different kind of excellent Italian operatic comedy from Mozart’s Figaro or Verdi’s Falstaff, and its sublimity is of a different dimension. But it exists.

At the Bowl, Yakov Kreizberg led the Philharmonic in the Dvorák G-major Symphony (No. 8 by current listings, although Tovey knew it as No. 4). Actually, Tovey slighted this work in the original collections of his 1939 Essays in Musical Analysis; the huge new collection, The Classics of Music, which came out in 2001, effects a reconciliation. Sir Donald’s working adjective for the symphony is “naughty.” He is troubled that the first movement’s main theme reminds of the old English music-hall number “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo,” but he was wrong. The clearer resemblance is to our own “Mairzy Doats,” which the saintly Antonin probably picked up, if proleptically, on his American visit.

That, however, is neither here nor there. The crowd at the Bowl last Tuesday was of above-average size, as it should have been. Kreizberg, who has been well-received here before — especially in a lively reading of the Shostakovich Ninth in 2000 — delivered an eloquent performance of the G-major Symphony, beautifully balanced and, in the slow movement, quite genuinely moving. On this all-Dvorák program the Cello Concerto was the opening work, in a technically capable but tame rendition by the young German cellist Alban Gerhardt. Dvorák’s orchestral language in both works called for a profusion of short, sharp chords, and from a box seat halfway back on the right side these were accompanied at many instances by a series of short, sharp echoes.

 

The New York Times’ obituary notice on David Raksin’s passing included Stephen Sondheim’s claim that Raksin’s main theme for Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful is “one of the best themes ever written in films.” Raksin was a pioneer, one of the first Americans to stake a claim as Hollywood’s doors were opening mostly to the European crowd. His credentials were in order; perhaps it took some harmony lessons with Arnold Schoenberg to undertake the chromatic twists in “Laura,” his signature tune. Earlier today I fished out Raksin’s old RCA recording of the Bad and the Beautiful Suite to check Sondheim’s claim. True enough; as surging, upwardly moving, symphonic, American-style movie scores go — the genre of film music that Raksin inhabited in his day — this is spectacularly good music. Hearing it brought me back in memory to watching that superheated Hollywood romance in Pauline Kael’s movie theater on Telegraph Avenue half a century ago, plus or minus. Just as music, therefore, it did what soundtrack recordings are supposed to do; I wonder how many of them do that nowadays.


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