COSTA MESA — The music of Michael Nyman leaves this listener with some wildly differing impressions.
The overriding impression it left after his Thursday night concert in Segerstrom Hall was that it is almost incredibly inane.
The 50-year-old British composer seems not to know, or not to care, that many of his chord progressions--chord progressions he seems to take seriously--are so well worn that even pop performers have sent them up. Ever heard "Rock Lobster" by the B-52s, Mr. Nyman? The classic Looney Tunes cartoons used a piece called "Powerhouse" to depict comic evil of the Tasmanian Devil, Yosemite Sam and the like; Nyman uses the same progression without a hint of tongue in cheek.
At times, Nyman seems shameless, employing the hoary method of appoggiatura in its simplest form to tug at the heartstrings of his unsuspecting listeners. In the music to "The Draughtsman's Contract," heard on the first half of the Orange County Performing Arts Center event, he borrows bass lines from Henry Purcell (1659-1695), gives them a beat, adds saxophones and, presto, vintage Nyman.
His music also seems humorless--a few Spike Jones-style gun shots, whistles and burps would do much of this music a world of good--and rhythmically flat and sentimental. . . .
And yet, some of it is undeniably effective. The rhythmic games and brash drive of the selection from "The Fall of Icarus" had a Zappa-like energy. Most of the music to "The Piano"--played on the second half of this concert, with eight string players from the Pacific Symphony augmenting the 10-member Michael Nyman Band--also falls into the effective category. There is something irresistibly warm and gooey about it, but also spacious and more original. The harmonies aren't so tired, the textures are busier and more tantalizing than those heard earlier in music from "The Draughtsman's Contract," "Zoo" and "Water Dances."
Not that "The Piano" excerpts were so special on this occasion. Nyman's choice of, or settling for, a blaring, shrill sound design made the music hazy, bright and confused, where on the soundtrack it woos you with its luxury, clarity and glow. His seeming indifference to polished ensemble playing also compromised his music. Minimalism--a term reportedly coined by Nyman himself when, in a former life, he was a music critic--should at least gleam.