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Classical Music

Critic's Notebook

A Pop Eye On The Classical


Popular culture and classical music have had different sorts of relationships over the years. Old-timers conjure up a time when radio stations supported great orchestras, television networks commissioned opera and Leopold Stokowski could shake hands with Mickey in "Fantasia" and then go home to Garbo.

Classical music has never left the cinema, Broadway stage, airways or gossip columns. But relationships change. For the most part rose-colored glasses have come off. Once portrayed as stick-figure heroes, classical artists are now more likely shown as deeply flawed misfits, outsiders to an era obsessed by pop culture like none before it.

Still, they are seen, and seen quite a bit in current films and plays that attempt to engage with the subject of classical music in pop culture terms. Some get it, some don't. But a trend is afoot.

On screen, we have "The Soloist," in which a homeless man finds a bit of salvation in a cello, and "Departures," in which a Japanese orchestral musician finds greater salvation stroking corpses than his cello. Francis Ford Coppola's latest, "Tetro," reveals what amazing dysfunction an egotistical conductor can bring upon his family.

Two recent plays are fanciful music history lessons -- Moises Kaufman's "33 Variations" (a production of which starred Jane Fonda on Broadway) and Itamar Moses' "Bach at Leipzig" (now at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble). The Wooster Group's "La Didone," a provocatively stylized commingling of stylized Italian Baroque opera and stylized Italian sci-fi, just finished a triumphant run at REDCAT.

Unfortunately, I don't find the films of particular benefit. Los Angeles Times readers hardly need to be filled in about "The Soloist," based as it is upon Steve Lopez's affecting columns about a homeless, Juilliard-trained bass player musician. Nathaniel Ayers is a real outsider artist and an inspired one who has picked up the cello (and quite a few other instruments).

But just about everything about music is misrepresented in the film. Ayers' uneven but charismatic and richly soulful playing is smoothed out into the gorgeous sound of Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong. Concerts in Walt Disney Concert Hall are treated as prissy formal events, which they are decidedly not. Esa-Pekka Salonen gets a dorky remake lest he look hip. Unconscionably, a philharmonic cellist who gave Ayers lessons is turned into a religious zealot on a mission.

Even so, I prefer a musically sanitized Ayers to the misfit in "Departures," the Japanese feature that won this year's Oscar for foreign film. After a struggling Tokyo orchestra suddenly goes out of business (actually, Tokyo supports more than a dozen orchestras), an unemployed cellist finds a new profession preparing and beatifying corpses for burial. Scenes jump from him playing sentimental music in the fields among spring blooms to dashing off to funerals.

Coppola comes by his connection to classical music though his late father, Carmine, a flutist in the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. Yet the domineering patriarch in "Tetro" is a cliched, musically unconvincing character with Toscanini's fame and an outsized libido. Musically, though, "Tetro" is terrific -- the soundtrack is by Osvaldo Golijov and combines Argentine styles with European ones.

The classics are more conventionally served in "33 Variations" and "Bach at Leipzig," which have much in common beyond playwrights with Mosaic names. In one, Beethoven struggles to complete his "Diabelli" Variations while a terminally ill, latter-day musicologist struggles to find out why the composer ever bothered with Diabelli's silly little waltz theme to begin with. In the other, famous German composers and organists compete for a post in Leipzig in 1722. Both plays tackle the issues of form and content, both give descriptions of writing fugues. Both leave an audience charged with music.

"33 Variations" is less conventional but also less clever, slipping too easily into maudlin sentiment. "Bach at Leipzig" has been compared to Tom Stoppard's work and like "Shakespeare in Love" is a historical fun house. Moses' wit is inconsistent, and his ever-winking irony can be tiresome, but the farce is quite entertaining, and when it gets serious, it serves genius well.

Beethoven and Bach are not exactly outsiders here, but they do represent the Other, musical masters who function on a higher level than those around them. Beethoven's eccentricities are treated as a source of amusement, but his ability to make Diabelli's waltz transcendent is understood to be a source of wonder.

Bach is a musical god whom we see only through the eyes of those who understand him, and I found that very moving. Darin Anthony's production at the Odyssey would do well to trust the text and music more and have actors romp less, but Rob Nagle as the forgotten Johann Friedrich Fasch, the play's most complex character, was good enough to start me hunting through old Baroque recordings for some of his music.

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