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Noodle-Noodle Soup

Between the movie screen and the concert stage, traffic moves in both directions. During the month of October you could have watched two great bygone film classics, Carl Dreyer‘s 1928 silent The Passion of Joan of Arc and Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, being weighed down with latter-day musical concoctions by Richard Einhorn and Philip Glass. At the Music Center you could have heard that excellent aggregation of freelance musicians, John Mauceri‘s Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, playing indoors and unmicrophoned for the first time locally, in an evening’s worth of music from various Alfred Hitchcock masterworks.

The Einhorn score, which carries its own title and credentials -- Voices of Light, an ”operaoratorio“ recorded in 1995 on Sony -- has been given here before with Dreyer‘s film, at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater and also at UCLA. It turned up again last month in Costa Mesa as part of ”Eclectic Orange,“ the extraordinary and ambitious -- if wildly variable -- entertainment package, still going on, put together by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. I had seen the previous performances, along with the recently released DVD, and took this as license to forgo the mixed pleasures of I-405 at rush hour this time around. I find the whole thing distasteful, up to the borderline of sacrilege; you have only to watch the film in silence, capitulating to the staggering emotionality in just the face of Maria Falconetti’s Joan, to realize the redundancy of any kind of accompanying music, and certainly of the Technicolor pseudo-piety of Einhorn‘s gaudy creation. Dreyer himself had recognized the self-sufficiency of his film in silence, but reluctantly allowed that Gregorian chant might serve as the one permissible musical background.

Yet this perversion could pass for high and noble art compared to the goings-on at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the bloodletting inflicted upon Dracula, which Philip Glass has managed to convert from a fine old Transylvanian goulash to warmed-over noodle soup. ”Noodle-noodle-noodle“ went the strings of the Kronos Quartet (its first time here with its newcomer cellist, Jennifer Culp), with the composer at the piano -- visible behind the screen and, thus, intrusive to the eye and the ear -- as the warmed-over arpeggios and gurgles wound their way up and down the scale: generic Glass, only minimally responsive to the action onscreen. Browning‘s original shocker managed its bloodcurdling biz with no music except the mellifluous Transylvanian purrings of Bela Lugosi in the leading role. This latter-day upgrade only proves the rightness of Browning’s decision. At least the new DVD release, slated for December, gives listeners the option of turning off the music. The crowd at Royce Hall on Halloween night, caught up in the appropriateness of the celebration (and dressed for the occasion), wasn‘t so lucky.

At John Mauceri’s Music Center concert three nights before, the 10 minutes of his own arrangement of Bernard Herrmann‘s music from Psycho, preserving the eeriness of Herrmann’s scoring for muted strings alone, needed no onscreen help in scaring the bejesus out of everyone present. Arguably, Herrmann‘s collaborations -- with Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese -- took Hollywood’s music to a level of seriousness, complexity and emotional intensity beyond the reach of his talented but more humdrum colleagues. Certainly Mauceri‘s program, with its share of corn and goo by Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin, offered no refutation to that argument -- nor, for all its gesturesome rhetoric, did the deliriously awful Spellbound Concerto of Miklos Rozsa, despite the eager championing of pianist Scott Dunn. The orchestra -- which, of course, isn’t an orchestra at all, but an ad hoc gathering to demonstrate the collective talents of the local freelance pool -- sounded just fine. I know of a few so-called ”major“ orchestras that could profitably study the energy level of our locals.

The notion of a cultural kinship between the phenomena of serious opera and television talk show may not readily occur to the dedicated operaphile or couch potato, yet the considerable and delightful triumph of Mikel Rouse‘s Dennis Cleveland -- most adventurous of all the ”Eclectic Orange“ offerings -- is in the cementing of just such a relationship. Originally produced -- and greatly acclaimed -- in 1996 at the Kitchen, lower Manhattan’s shrine to the far-beyond, Cleveland‘s five-night run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was enough in itself to transform that traditionally cautious venue into a hotbed of arts exploration.

Designer John Jesurun converted the Center’s small Founders Hall into a believable TV studio, festooned with monitors and logos, in which talk-show host Dennis Cleveland (Rouse himself) welcomed four couples of lovelorn misfits and set them to bickering among themselves in a dense, explosive counterpoint. Cleveland, meanwhile, moseyed around through the audience, several of which were also cast members, cued to cast further aspersions on the guests onstage and, in the process, to spill some of their guts into the studio monitors and out to the presumed-spellbound nationwide audience.

Maybe it‘s an opera, maybe something else for which no name has yet been coined; whatever, I found the sheer energy in Cleveland irresistible, exhilarating. The vocal lines -- sung, spoken, sometimes yelled -- ride on a throbbing, bubbling taped underpinning of hip-hop. The cast, each in hisher own way phenomenally adept at acrobatics both verbal and bodily, carried out their special battles in wildly veering rap-style ”arias.“ One of the planted audience members, Japanese performance artist Ryuji Noda, communicated not with words but with his harmonica, a nice musical touch, a gleaming, floating descant.

This season’s ”Eclectic Orange“ playbill has offered such diverse elements as Stravinsky‘s Oedipus Rex blended into the seductive doublethink of a filmed Leonard Bernstein lecture on that work, visiting orchestras from Moscow and Washington, a bluegrassclassical mix titled Short Trip Home, an evening of theater melding Canadian and Italian talent into a pageant on nothing less than the History of Mankind, and -- still due, on November 16 -- a first-ever local visit from Les Arts Florissants, the hot-ticket Paris-based baroque-opera troupe. The event’s sponsors, with media artist and impresario Dean Corey as spark plug, have their eyes on Brooklyn‘s multifaceted and greatly successful ”Next Wave“ festival as inspiration; so far, so good.


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