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Film scores in tune with America's spirit

Slatkin and the Philharmonic make the most of movie fare.

September 14, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

EVEN without the 9/11 commemorations in immediate memory, the "American Film Classics" program Tuesday at the Hollywood Bowl would have prompted meditations on the national character and its changes.

Leonard Slatkin led the L.A. Philharmonic in music that Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Leonard Bernstein composed for such iconic films as "The Plow That Broke the Plains," "The Red Pony," "The Heiress" and "On the Waterfront." John Corigliano's score for "Altered States" pushed the argument forward a few decades.

Short film clips projected onto the screens at the sides of the stage preceded the live performances, putting the music into dramatic context and reinforcing the notion that we see ourselves and our values in terms of silver-screen images.

In an era when we could look at ourselves unflinchingly, Thomson brilliantly used folk music, cowboy songs, hymns and jazz to trace the arc from bountiful agricultural promise to ravaged wasteland in the 1936 Farm Services Administration Dust Bowl documentary "The Plow That Broke the Plains." Thomson's socially conscious ironies were lost without seeing the film, but the music still speaks powerfully about hope and hope lost.

Copland eschewed irony in his populist style, writing music that was open, visionary, optimistic and strong. Meant to embody decency and quiet heroism, it well suited Lewis Milestone's 1949 film "The Red Pony," which focused on family and Americans' mythic relationship with the horse. The style joyfully, if almost too vitally, also framed the domestic drama in William Wyler's 1949 film "The Heiress."

Elia Kazan's 1954 "On the Waterfront" focused on more-gritty issues, dealing with corruption and conflicted family realities. Bernstein responded with music that vividly reflected those complexities but still allowed for hope, if only between individuals falling in love.

Corigliano's ingenious score for Ken Russell's 1980 film "Altered States" depicted a fascinating, free-floating narcissism, truer to our age perhaps than are any of the other films.

Slatkin and the orchestra realized all these values with verve and commitment. William Lane's gorgeous horn solos provided the linking thread through the Bernstein suite. Other prominent soloists included flutist Anne Diener Zentner, guest saxophonist Jim Rotter and oboist Ariana Ghez, who won't officially join the orchestra until Monday.

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