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Concertos for Violin, Piano and Camera

Works from Miklos Rozsa's and Nino Rota's most vibrant film years underscore how things have changed in Hollywood.

**** ROTA, Two Concertos for Piano. Giorgia Tomassi, piano; Filarmonica della Scala; Riccardo Muti, conductor, EMI

*** ROZSA, Concertos for Violin and Cello, Theme and Variations for Violin, Cello and Orchestra. Robert McDuffie, violin; Lynn Harrell, cello; Atlanta Symphony; Yoel Levi,conductor,Telarc

March 26, 2000|MARK SWED | Mark Swed is The Times' music critic

The concerto, in which the individual (a soloist) is pitted against the mob (the orchestra), is absolute music at its most theatrical. We speak politely of a soloist's dialogue with the orchestra or collaboration with a conductor. We expect the orchestra to be supportive. Yet what we really anticipate is temperament, conflict, high drama.

When noted Berkeley musicologist Joseph Kerman devoted his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, at Harvard, to the concerto three years ago, he dutifully noted the conversational character of concertos. But in the recent publication of those talks, he also remarked that he preferred to use video clips rather than mere audio examples during his presentations. Part of the fun of the concerto experience, Kerman confesses, is witnessing the soloist and orchestra interact.

So it is hardly surprising that the concerto format would suit a film composer. Scoring a film involves the art of supplying music that can put a star in relief. But in a concerto, the composer has the greater satisfaction of running the whole show, as the star dances to the music's tune.

Among tonight's nominees for best soundtrack, for instance, are John Corigliano's score to "The Red Violin," which also inspired a concerto-like work for violinist Joshua Bell, "The Red Violin Chaconne." A few years back, Michael Nyman turned his music to the Oscar-nominated score for "The Piano" into "The Piano Concerto."

Still, Hollywood is not quite the ideal concerto country it once was. In what many consider to be the Golden Age of film music, the '30s through the '50s, not only were the illustrious studio composers classically trained (today that is no longer the rule), but their neighbors also happened to be great soloists: violinist Jascha Heifetz, pianist Artur Rubinstein and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. And Hollywood even had a bit of a crush on classical celebrities--Heifetz, Leopold Stokowski and Grace Moore were among those who got the occasional starring role.

Interactions, therefore, between film composers and classical soloists were inevitable, especially with someone as proactive as Heifetz.

When Heifetz learned of Miklos Rozsa's sketches for a violin concerto, he pestered the Hungarian emigre composer to finish it immediately. That's all it took for Rozsa to drop everything (it was 1953, the year he scored "Julius Caesar" and "Knights of the Round Table") and quickly complete the work, which Heifetz also premiered and recorded. Lately it has been finding its way into the repertory.

This kind of synergy between film composers and the concerto wasn't limited to Hollywood. Italy's most distinguished film composer and Fellini regular, Nino Rota, also maintained an active career as a composer of concert music and opera. In 1958, Rota wrote a piano concerto for legendary Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli.

Still, listening to new recordings of these concertos from the composers' liveliest film years is an unusual experience for most of us, because we cannot avoid associating the musical style with film. Rota's Concerto in C begins with a beguilingly innocent Mozartean piano solo that, once repeated by the orchestra, turns harmonically worldly. It's contrasting theme is jagged carnival music. All of this, of course, practically defines the style of early Fellini, and it is particularly easy to picture the heroine of "Nights of Cabiria" (which Rota scored two years earlier), a prostitute who combines childlike impulsiveness with impish street smarts.

The piano writing here is dazzling (as befitted Michelangeli); the concerto borrows from Prokofiev's glittery piano style and Stravinsky's strong sense of classical structure. It has a deliciously melodic middle movement and a dashing Finale. It was written just about the time of "La Dolce Vita," and although its Neoclassicism doesn't quite mesh with the more decadent Roman society of that Fellini masterpiece, the tone does capture that carefree sense of the times that seems so terribly attractive now.

Rozsa's Violin Concerto has its connections with the movies as well. It was written just as the composer, who won Oscars for "Spellbound" and "A Double Life," was entering his grand epic phase--Rozsa would go on to set the mood for "Quo Vadis," "Ben-Hur," "El Cid" and "King of Kings."

But the Violin Concerto also has a specific connection with a different sort of film. Billy Wilder, while writing the screenplay for "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes," listened endlessly to Heifetz's recording of the concerto, and it entered into his subconsciousness. He associated the stormy first movement with Holmes' cocaine addiction, the haunting second movement with Holmes' suppressed romantic tendencies, the third with the Loch Ness monster in the film's climax. And in the end, Wilder persuaded Rozsa to cannibalize the concerto along just those lines and make it into the score for the 1970 film.

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