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Symphony's Video Dares to Confront

October 15, 1987|AURORA MACKEY | Mackey is a North Hollywood free-lance writer.

Chances are you won't see the West Valley Symphony's latest music video on MTV or find it in record stores next to Beethoven or Brahms. Nevertheless, there are people who think the symphony's most recent production will strike a new chord on the classical-music video stage.

"For Simon Rodia Who Built the Watts Towers" features three dancers in hand-painted leotards climbing a scaffold-like structure to music performed by the West Valley Symphony and lyrics sung by soprano Diane Demetras. Orchestra members are never shown during the 18-minute video, which was shown for the first time two weeks ago at the Los Angeles Fringe Festival and is scheduled for airing by West Valley Cable Vision later this year.

"It wasn't meant to be pleasing as much as it was meant to confront," said West Valley Symphony cellist Leonard Koff, who six years ago wrote a poem about the Watts Towers that became the lyrics for the video.

The three dancers, who at first are seen in contorted postures on the floor and later in a crucifix-like pose on the scaffolding, "represent the underlying artistic struggle of artists in Los Angeles to create," Koff said.

The often atonal music, written by Symphony conductor James Domine, "depicts the scene of Los Angeles in sound, where nothing is taken seriously," Domine said.

Koff, an English professor at UCLA and author of a soon-to-be-published book on Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote his poem after learning that it had taken Simon Rodia 33 years to build the Watts Towers. During that time, he said, "the artist received little or no encouragement on any level.

"I was overwhelmed by the sense of dedication that artists need to have. It made me realize that you can't count on your work being accepted immediately, because it may never be." Koff said he considers himself as much a poet as a musician.

What sets the Rodia video apart from most classical music videos is that most just show the orchestra, said William Stromberg, systems manager for Tower Classics record store in Sherman Oaks. "Some of them have pastoral scenes, but they always segue back to people in the orchestra playing."

Stromberg said he had "never seen anything" like a classical-music video where musicians were not shown, except pieces written specifically for ballets.

Unlike the man who moved him to write about artistic perseverance and purpose, Koff's endeavors have found more immediate support and recognition.

In 1981, Koff's poem was published in the Los Angeles-based magazine, "Poetry / L.A." Shortly afterward, West Valley Symphony conductor James Domine set the words to music for soprano and piano. After the work was performed at the Schoenberg Institute in Los Angeles, Domine orchestrated it for the West Valley Symphony.

Last year, the idea of choreographing the music for dancers and turning the work into a music video emerged.

"The symphony had already been successful with its first classical-music video, and so, when we suggested producing this one, we got enthusiastic responses from the artists and musicians who would later be involved in its creation," said Jerry Domine, father of conductor James Domine and executive producer for the Rodia video.

"California Mission Suite," the West Valley Symphony's first classical-music video, was based on a Spanish theme written by James Domine and received an Emmy nomination last year.

Finding financing for the Rodia project, however, was more difficult.

"I applied for grants through just about every arts organization, but when they heard what we wanted to do, they basically said that what we had in mind didn't exist as an art form," Jerry Domine said.

Domine finally received a grant from the Los Angeles Department of Telecommunications. West Valley Cable Vision, which serves 64,000 Valley residents, agreed to an in-kind match of production and editing services. The video was produced for under $5,000.

Part of West Valley Cable Vision's decision to support the project, according to general manager Boni Fine, was based on a commitment to support local arts endeavors that otherwise would not receive air time.

"Arts programming plays well in our marketplace, and our demographics show our audience is affluent, professional and sophisticated in terms of entertainment choices," Fine explained. "So, when we have a program of this type, it is usually well received."

Besides airing on cable television later this year, the video also will be offered to the Watts Foundation and the Los Angeles Unified School District, Domine said.

Koff and others associated with the project, however, say they have no illusions about seeing the video receive widespread or instant recognition as a new art form.

"Like Rodia," Koff said, "we may have to wait for that."

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