Entertainment » Music

'Othello' and 'The Stonecutters' :: Two From Goldenthal

by Michael McDonagh
Friday Jul 18, 2014
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The theatre is a very expensive place to work in, or as composer Philip Glass put it, "Opera companies are always raising money because every time the curtain goes up they're losing money, even with 'Carmen.' " Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal's 90-minute, three-act ballet "Othello," which Lar Lubovitch choreographed for the San Francisco Ballet, caused a sensation when it premiered here at the War Memorial Opera House in 1997. Our ballet toured it, and American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey performed it, proving that it had legs. But every theatre composer wants their work to have a life after the curtain goes down, so Goldenthal re-cast his "Othello" into a 34-minute stand-alone symphony for an orchestra of 80, which Poland's AUKSO symphony under Marek Mos have recorded on Goldenthal's Zarathustra Music label, which has also released a CD of his striking chamber work.

Both are major achievements, especially when you're up against Shakespeare's trenchant 1605 original, Verdi's operatic masterwork based on it, and the hallowed European chamber music tradition. Goldenthal's extensive work for the stage also includes scores for films as diverse as Neil Jordan's "Interview with the Vampire" (1994) and director Michael Mann's "Heat" (1995) and "Public Enemies" (2009). His score for Mann's 2015 "Cyber" is in post-production. He won his Oscar for his score for Julie Taymor's "Frida" (2002). Goldenthal pulls it off because his mastery of all of the elements that make up theatre - character, gesture, weight, pace, meaning - is so complete. His ear is acute, and so is his sense of musical space and time.

His Oscar-winning gay composer teachers Aaron Copland and John Corigliano, who's perhaps most famous for his widely performed "AIDS Symphony # 1," helped give him the skills for his technique to blossom into his own personal and often highly visceral style. Goldenthal credits Corigliano this way. "Without imposing his will or his stylistic proclivities, he showed me the right mirror to reflect things that were there all the time." Goldenthal's theatrical gifts are apparent in his recorded chamber-music works, which date from the 1970s, when he was in his 20s. The elemental married with the essential is what gives his Othello its ineluctable drive. It's one of the most fully realized evening-length marriages of dance and music since Prokofiev's ballet score for Romeo and Juliet (1935-36).

Lubovitch compresses Shakespeare's five-act drama of innocence and betrayal into a series of solo and general dances, and Goldenthal is with him from the get-go. His music telescopes and magnifies the matter at hand. A glass harmonica begins it, putting Othello's and Desdemona's innocent love center-stage. His ballet's "Carnival Dance" has morphed into his symphony's Allegro, replete with its harmonic zigzags and blowsy wind solos. Other sections are just as striking, because Lubovitch has succinctly embedded the action of his and Goldenthal's 14-minute "Tarantella" into a piece which mirrors the specific actors in the play/ballet as other things happen around them, as in life. His orchestration makes the matters at hand feel entirely necessary. It's a fragmented fanfare, and his complex, constantly shifting counts must keep even the best of orchestras on their toes. There's lots of syncopation, dramatically motivated. Sax solos are bleary, desperate. Enchanted harmonics fly above the human fray. Mos and his AUKSO orchestra best even the superb San Francisco Ballet under Emil de Cou's direction on Varese Sarabande, which, though very fine, doesn't have quite the same vigor and sense of impending tragedy.

Goldenthal's CD "String Quartet No. 1 - The Stone Cutters" (2013) is impressive for what it tries to do and does do. His two-movement 1977 Sonata for Double Bass and Piano has rude assurance rare for his time, when he was likely expected to write in the canonical 12-note style, but his imagination and that of his players here - Tim Cobb, double bass, and Stephen Gosling, piano - seem to have leaped over difficult hurdles. His Brass Quintet # 2 (1978), played by the Extension Ensemble, seems even more difficult, with a few notes of Stravinsky's great homage to Debussy "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" (1920) lurking behind it. This sounds like the ground from which Goldenthal's "Othello," with its explicit and disguised fanfares, flourished.

The 1974 "Three Pieces" for Solo Piano, with Geilach Perach, piano, eschews drama for intimacy, but not always convincingly. "The Stone Cutters," which takes off from a poem by Robinson Jeffers, delineates its sculptural, classical reserve as if from afar, but doesn't seem to take off in any new direction until its second half, which looks forward to the steeped but classicized blues that would shadow Goldenthal's wonderfully "simple" score for Mann's "Public Enemies."

These two beautiful CDs show where Goldenthal has been and where he might next go. He's one of the most gifted composers on the international scene, and not just in the undeservedly maligned arena of film music. He's continuously coming into his own.

Copyright Bay Area Reporter. For more articles from San Francisco's largest GLBT newspaper, visit www.ebar.com

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