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MUSIC REVIEW

A New Soundtrack for 'The Wind'

L.A. Philharmonic launches its season with a venture by Sellars & Salonen that pairs Sibelius with a classic silent film.

October 10, 1998|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

From his first opera productions in modern dress (and probably earlier, as far back as a college staging of Wagner's "Ring" with puppets), Peter Sellars has been setting up dialogues between us and history, as well as between unconnected cultures and/or media.

Usually there is a question. Can a callous Wall Street yuppie find redemption the way Mozart's Count does in "The Marriage of Figaro"? Are ethnic clashes on Venice Beach caused by the same lack of communication that Shakespeare explored in "Merchant of Venice"? Did the great mystical love story of Ming China, "The Peony Pavilion," foretell the enormous consequences of both the repressed and unfettered eroticism that confront modern life?

And now, with the opening of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's new subscription season Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a new proposition. Sellars suggests that a classic of silent cinema, Victor Seastrom's searing study of emotional turbulence, "The Wind," might illuminate the soul's journey for a modern audience--if it were joined by music equal to, and spiritually at one with, the film.

In this case, Sellars looked historically and culturally near rather than far, but with the result, nonetheless, of emphasizing great cultural upheavals. "The Wind," which stars Lillian Gish in what is often considered her greatest role, is a Swedish filmmaker's bleak vision of an American West in which the wind never stops blowing. It is the last of Seastrom's nine Hollywood films, made in the '20s before he returned to Sweden and resumed a distinguished acting career (which culminated in the role of Professor Isak Berg in Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries").

But "The Wind" is also a classic example of the clash between art and commerce that is ever Hollywood's curse. And Sellars' selection of music by Sibelius is an attempt to right 70 years' worth of wrongs to this film, and, perhaps in the process, to show us some solutions for modern cinema. For great as "The Wind" is, it is not as great as it should be. Exhibitors, horrified by this bleak, relentlessly hostile western, forced a new, happy ending upon it. The movie was reportedly further cheapened by tacking on a collage of trite music. (A restored "Wind" got better but still conventionally subservient music a few years ago with a new orchestral score by Carl Davis.)

Sellars, with the willing cooperation of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Philharmonic's Finnish music director, turned to Sibelius. The Finnish composer, whose music is haunted by what Glenn Gould called the idea of the north, and the Swedish filmmaker were near contemporaries. "En Saga," for instance, added a mood of serious foreboding to the amusing opening scene thanks to Sibelius' own wonderfully desiccating sounds of the wind. From there the score is a musical journey of both the well known ("The Oceanides") to downright obscure (incidental music from "King Christian II").

Sometimes there were remarkable "hits," as Salonen, at the preconcert Upbeat Live, described the moments when music and film were in mysterious synchronization. Sometimes there was simply a more general sense of rightness--Sibelius' evocations of a stormy nature proved incredibly effective accompaniment to Seastrom's use of the wind to symbolize Gish's emotional agitation, as she is forced into a loveless marriage in a hostile environment. Sometimes the music said something different than the film, reminding us of its depth even when Hollywood demanded surface, and the false happy ending, underscored by "Night Ride and Sunset," now feels more like one of spiritual transformation.

One learns a lot from this exercise, and so it is unfortunate to report that it remains just that, an exercise. The Philharmonic, for all its reputed interest in conjoining film and music (this presentation was a last-minute substitute for a new Filmharmonic project that was postponed), hasn't worked out the actual presentation acceptably. Cropped, projected as fuzzy video on too small a screen over the orchestra, washed out by light from the musicians' stands, John Arnold's extraordinary cinematography hardly registered. The music was interesting and well performed, but the film looked like an afterthought. It also, at 71 minutes, ran seven fewer minutes than a version currently available on video.

As an opener Salonen gave us his latest piece, a short overture, a 40th birthday present for his friend, Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg. "Gambit" shares the bright character of Salonen's latest music, particularly "LA Variations"; it is outgoing, celebratory, rhythmically alive, sparkling with subtle wit and sizzling fireworks. And yet it has an underlying seriousness, its own kind of Sibelian wind (in its obsession with a single rhythm and descending scales) that gives it grit and provides an uncanny musical corollary to Seastrom's Scandinavian Hollywood.

*

* The Los Angeles Philharmonic repeats "The Wind" tonight at 8, Saturday, 2:30 p.m., and Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. $11-$65, (213) 850-2000.

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