Elfman's 'Rabbit' hops, but will it fly?
Review: The film composer's first ballet doesn't quite work as
There are two kinds of ballet music the kind that, for
various reasons, achieves independent life as concert music, and the kind that,
for various reasons, doesn't. Either kind, by the way, can be good ballet music
per se, that is, it can make perfectly suitable material to dance to.
No one plays Adolphe Adam's score to Giselle as concert music, but that
doesn't mean it's not fine ballet music. On the other hand, the ballet music
of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, to name a few, is a staple of the concert
repertoire, at least in suite form.
This listener's sense of Danny Elfman's score for Rabbit and
Rogue, Twyla Tharp's new dance for American Ballet Theatre, is that it wouldn't
succeed especially well as concert music. The 45-minute work has many appealing
qualities: it's athletic in its rhythms, attractively tuneful at times, thoroughly
fun (and sometimes funny) and approachable. As dance music, it seems to serve
Tharp and company just fine.
Rabbit and Rogue is Elfman's second extended non-filmic
piece for orchestra. As with many other film composers who are deprived of images
on the screen for inspiration, in Rabbit he appears to struggle with
the idea of form. The music wanders here, there and everywhere without anything
to tie it down. Even within the five pieces that make up his ballet, there is
no clear forward thrust, or sense of beginning, middle and end. The nonnarrative
structure of Tharp's Rabbit and Rogue (it has no scenario) seems to have
left Elfman hanging without a rope.
What's more, Elfman's score, again like much film music, is derivative.
Philip Glass informs its rhythms and many of its harmonies. Prokofiev is in
there a lot too, and one movement is an extensive crib on the fugue section
of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. A quote, or near
quote, of a famous tune (or is it?), which then takes over the proceedings,
will have the knowing listener scratching his head and trying to place it. He
also throws in an off-kilter waltz, some circus stuff (galumphing elephants)
and a ragtime with electronic dub accompaniment (not bad).
It all ends up sounding rather like a musical soup constantly being stirred,
motion for the sake of motion. The orchestration is typically cinematic (take
it or leave it) and the orchestra is amplified, which turns it into a collection
of different, distinct sounds rather than a palette of colors to combine, blend,
shade and amass.
On the first half of the program, Danish composer Knudaage Riisager's
score for Etudes (1948) proved a charming treat. It's based on a series
of Czerny's piano exercises, once the bane of every piano student's existence,
and is gracefully, creatively instrumented, with a few modernistic colors and
a spicy dissonance thrown in here and there. A concert suite could definitely
be made (the overture is especially delightful, a breezy lacing of scales).
The Pacific Symphony played both scores ably and enthusiastically,
some occasional difficulties in the Etudes notwithstanding. Charles Barker
(Etudes) and Ormsby Wilkins conducted.