Elfman's 'Rabbit' hops, but will it fly?

By Timothy Mangan
Orange County Register
Uploaded 2008.08.07
Source: ocregister.com
Review: The film composer's first ballet doesn't quite work as music.
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.
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