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MUSIC REVIEW

Williams Evokes Hall's Steel Beginnings in 'Soundings'

October 26, 2003|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Stars attract stars.

With the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall such a celebrated event, it was only a matter of time before the celebrities started showing up en masse, parading before clicking cameras. Last night, "Soundstage L.A.," the final of the three opening gala concerts by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was for them.

John Williams conducted the premiere of a piece he wrote for the hall; the rest of the music came from films. Esa-Pekka Salonen and Williams shared the podium. Steven Spielberg, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Hanks did the master-of-ceremonying.

The latter three -- who stiffly read dutiful copy from a TelePrompTer just as badly as if they were at the Oscars -- were apparently what it took to get Hollywood inside the hall. Certainly it took something, since industry people are not notable among the large list of donors in the program book. The pandering didn't stop there. One of the evening's draws was the young PBS darling Josh Groban, massively outclassed though he was by Audra McDonald. Still, much proved surprisingly impressive, beginning with Williams' new "Soundings."

If not strong on musical ideas, "Soundings," which opened the program, was strong on sound. It began in silence -- a silence broken by the whirring noise of fans from the television lights (the PBS broadcast is Wednesday). Flutes and percussion then rustled to represent the hall awakening. As he is in film scores, Williams is most successful in creating a sense of expectation.

Once wide-eyed, the hall, through Williams' score, quivered, trembled, pulsated, throbbed. There were eerie and extravagant effects I couldn't quite identify. Once it sounded as if a battery of glass harmonicas surrounded the audience. Williams cleverly created the amazing illusion of instruments traveling about this listening space. A deep electronic organ note made the ground on which we sat feel alive. (The real organ will be ready next year.)

The main part of the program was divided between excerpts from film scores of the classic and modern eras, with Salonen and Williams dividing the conducting duties. The Salonen selections seemed to have an amusing subtext.

He began with Max Steiner's "King Kong," the first film score to dramatically underpin the action on screen, and he wound up with Bernard Herrmann's music for "Vertigo." Both scores evoke Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde," and the opera is quoted in "King Kong" to symbolize the notion of forbidden love.

The crashing tam-tam solo resonated so realistically through Disney that it felt as though the big ape was but a few feet away.

Then there was Jerry Goldsmith's world-gone-awry music from "Planet of the Apes." Salonen, who will conduct his first "Tristan" in Disney next season, also happens to be at work on an opera involving an ape.

In the classic department, Williams oversaw a gorgeous performance of the theme from Alfred Newman's "Wuthering Heights," which featured a luminous violin solo from concertmaster Martin Chalifour. More up to date, Williams happily blazed through Elmer Bernstein's "The Magnificent Seven" and his own "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Groban's tremulous contribution was from "An Affair to Remember." McDonald's highlight was a riotous performance of "10,432 Sheep" from "The West Point Story," which Salonen accompanied, humorously adding his own vocal interjections.

Brian Stokes Mitchell was a surprise guest, singing David Raksin's theme from "Laura" as if it were not one of the most mysteriously moody songs ever written but fodder for Broadway money moments.

There are kinks to be worked out at Disney, and the amplification system is the biggest -- it makes music echo cavernously and speech barely intelligible. They may have to start over with this one.

But there was also one special movement last night that only a critic running out to meet a deadline could experience. Following "Vertigo," Salonen ended the program with Herrmann's clangorous music from an early film noir, "On Dangerous Ground." The clangs mixed with street sounds as I dashed from the hall.

I couldn't tell at what point the clangs ended and the traffic began; and suddenly Frank Gehry's great building truly did take on the sense of being an integral part of the street and the city.

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