Reviews - Serenada Schizophrana

Blofeld picReview by Bluntinstrument

The approach of a composer to an unfamiliar medium or genre is always an interesting development, not simply because it might make a break in the monotony for the listener or even that it might inspire new creative impulses on the part of the artist, but because it can often shed light on how he works and where his strengths lie. Composers who write for film and concert hall generally fall into two categories: those whose style takes on a very different character and those whose style leaps fully formed straight into its new surroundings. And then there might be a few occasions when one cannot quite pin down what has happened, and this is such a case. Danny Elfman is regarded by his admirers (and occasionally by his detractors) as a master of the mood of a film, capturing its essence and projecting added life into it, so how does he cope without a scene to score? It is also to be noted that he exceeded expectations in moving away from each style of scoring he was thought to have been pigeon-holed into, whether the zany early Pee-wee's, the dark Batman, or the ever decreasing circles of thematic concentration during the late '90s. Behind this apparent flux has always stood a deep love of the composers of the Golden Age of cinema right up to Bernard Herrmann, reflecting also a deep love of the Russian romantics and early 20th century boundary-pushers, from Rimsky-Korsakov to Stravinsky.
It is therefore a delight that his first concert work strips away the stylistic embellishments that arose from his film projects (perhaps because of the visual stimulation) leaving a work basking in distinct pleasure of its own themes, rhythms and harmonic ingenuities - in much the form that he so admires in the work of his now-classic influences. The strutting of 'Quadruped patrol' reminds one somewhat of sections from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an exhibition; "I forget", with its bleating female chorus heralding the occasional rasping orchestral crescendo is a self-conscious emulation of Orff's chant-based technique employed in Carmina Burana; 'Blue strings' is by turns a creepy and nasty look into Herrmann/Vaughan Williams territory; 'A brass thing' is a thumping brass-dominated march whose brittleness is pure Stravinsky, whose weird jazz turns are pure Stravinsky but whose enigmatic saxophone solos (almost Pictures again?), main theme, less ellusive harmonic shifts and rhythmic fluidity are something else entirely.
It is perhaps in the outer movements when Elfman's own voice is heard most on its own terms: 'Pianos' may employ an almost gamelan Glass-esque pianistic style, but it is firmly rooted in a thrilling driving momentum of its own (forward motion not being a Glass forte), and the way the very opening dramatically emerges from an almost Brucknerian ether into an unfolding harmonic build-up complete with tonal twists and orchestral luminosity is a Main Titles cue in extremus. 'Bells' shows the composer's mettle in a different way, by building up a distinctly eerie sotto voce polyphony around a chanting tinckly theme reminiscent of similar in Sleepy Hollow etc... and then turning aside mid-way into a cataclysmic toccata finale before a coda hints at 'Quadruped' before ending on a cheeky octave leap-out-of-nowhere ending - here is an example of a composer who knows the effect of his music, how far he can stretch an idea, and finally how he can have the last laugh. Pure Elfman.
Update after the release of the CD:
Constantly evolving, reinventing its themes, shifting its momentum, bringing out changing orchestral colours, but remaining defiantly Elfman, this work deserved a CD release from the moment of its enthusiastic reception at the Carnegie Hall but was doomed to a half life of illicit concert recordings and use in the film Deep Sea 3D. Recorded again, properly mixed, and, according to sources, both revised and free from the inevitable mistakes of a live premiere, even the stereo CD recording (as opposed to the stereo or 5.1 SACD layer) enables the listener to tease more enjoyment from the score. Everything from the cornucopia of percussion to an extended lyrical flute candenza are beautifully performed and recorded. What the recording reveals in detail, however, it hides some of the sheer vehemence (particularly of the brass) and drive from the first performance. There is much to say for rough edges when they are a product of spontaneity, and the CD isn't helped by an occasionally rather dry and flat approach to dynamics and phrasing where what it really needed was a flamboyant and heartfelt Mahlerian conductor at the helm - someone to bring out the heat, the absurdities, the melancoly, the swing, the fierceness, without sacrificing the loving detail this disc affords. Personally I am waiting for a professional orchestra to pick this work up and provide a fresh interpretation and gain a better balance between technical proficiency and dramatic instinct, because the music very obviously deserves it.
One bonus this disc offers which is more than the afterthought that title suggests is 'Improv for alto sax'. This is no improvisation but a creepy little lullaby hewn from the same rock as the Serenada, sharing some similar thematic material and textures as well as hinting at that of Big Fish. It does not stand too well as a single concert work because it fails to progress to any kind of culmination or conclusion, and as such feels a little more like a score cue, but this isn't to discount it.
MUSIC: * * * * DISC: * * * PREMIERE CONCERT: * * *

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