GOLDSMITH:  Christus Apollo.  Music for Orchestra.  Fireworks.
Anthony Hopkins, narrator; Eirian James, mezzo-soprano; London Voices; London Symphony Orch/Jerry Goldsmith, cond.
TELARC CD 80560 (F) (DDD) TT:  51:21
 

It took me a while to realize that movie scores actually had composers. When I was twelve, I heard Rózsa's score to Ben-Hur, which bowled me over and moved me to buy a piano reduction "for home use." That was my road to Damascus. I now understood that the music didn't just appear or was somehow painted on the film, but that someone actually chose the notes, just as Bach and Beethoven did. Later, Goldsmith's American pastoral music for Lilies of the Field had the same effect. Rózsa and Goldsmith became names to watch for. Goldsmith has had, of course, a fairly successful movie career, with distinguished scores for The Illustrated Man, Patton, The Sand Pebbles, Planet of the Apes, The Wind and the Lion, music usually many times better than the movies it supported. I've not encountered Goldsmith's concert works before this disc, so these are really the only three pieces I know.

Two qualities stand out: Goldsmith's sense of drama and his mastery of several idioms. Each score is all of a piece, but each does differ from the others. Music for Orchestra is twelve-tone, Christus Apollo I would call "eclectically twelve-tone," and Fireworks a big, tonal, extrovert extravaganza befitting its title. In all three scores, however, Goldsmith's ability to find a dramatic structure carries the listener along. Whatever one may think of the ultimate aesthetic success of these works, one can't really deny their expressive power.

Music for Orchestra comes from a low point in the composer's life—a divorce and the death of his mother from cancer. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Goldsmith found the technique "liberating," a way to express his deepest feelings. Most important, the feelings came first. This is no academic exercise just to see if he can do it. Goldsmith lays out his materials clearly. If you know something about dodecaphonic process, the ease with which you can follow his (non-trivial) motific argument will amaze you. This music wants to communicate rather than to obfuscate. The work falls into three large sections: a cry of pain, a section of heavy introspection, and a final allegro full of Crestonian cross-rhythms and big strides. For me, this is the finest piece of the three.

Christus Apollo shows greater ambition and achieves less success. It's the most elaborate piece on the program—nothing less than a full-scale oratorio with soloist, chorus, speaker (Anthony Hopkins, no less), and an orchestra large enough to include organ, extra percussion, maybe more than one harp, as well as the usual suspects. The text, by Ray Bradbury, dissatisfies in the way most Bradbury does: beautiful writing to express lousy ideas. The cantata is dodecaphonic, but the effect differs radically from the Music for Orchestra. It comes closer to Impressionism than the Edvard-Munch Expressionism of most twelve-tone pieces. The "edges" are less sharp. Goldsmith interests himself in finding a sensual, palpable beauty to the idiom, rather than merely rigorous consistency of pattern. The rigor is there, of course, but it's not an end in itself. He has mastered the orchestra to such an extent that he finds both beauty and power much of the time. Indeed, the music (and Anthony Hopkins) carries the text. I should also admit that I seem to hear long stretches of music eminently, beautifully tonal. Whether the composer has in fact generated them from a 12-tone row I can't confirm or deny without a score. Again, the procedures of composition matter less than the resultant music. The plot, for those who care, is essentially Jesus Goes into Space. The idea is too silly to bother calling it blasphemous, but in fairness I must say I doubt these misgivings would occur to someone while listening to the piece. Bradbury has always had a gift for bewitching word-music, occasionally stepping over the line into pure purple.

A Voice spoke in the dark,
And there was Light.
And summoned up by Light upon the Earth
The creatures swam
And moved upon the land.
And lived in garden wilderness;
All this, we know.
The Seven Days are written in our blood
With hand of Fire.

A neat conflation of Genesis and John. Bradbury also comes up with great "scenes," to appeal to a dramatic composer, which of course Goldsmith is, and Goldsmith rises to the occasion. I can best describe the function of the music as an accompaniment to scenes -- its great strength and limitation. Although we get almost thirty-five minutes of drama and some very effective moments, we get very few "hits," like Berlioz's "Holy Family's Farewell" or Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus. In part, this is due to Goldsmith's decision to proceed by large scenes, rather than by separate numbers. Goldsmith's cantata is thus a creditable piece of work, but I doubt it will prove a loveable one.

Fireworks, on the other hand, asks for nothing more than to be liked. Although he originally wrote the piece to accompany a fireworks display, Goldsmith realized that he was actually writing "a celebration of Los Angeles ... the city where I was born and had lived my entire life." As a portrait of L. A., it doesn't do much for me. It's way too noble. To me, the only thing it really captures about the city is its self-aggrandizement and its love of masks. When I think of Los Angeles in musical terms, I think of something more like Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony. Fireworks misses the giddiness, the glitz, the amalgam of so many different cultures, the loony utopianism. The music is just way too generic as a portrait. It would be equally inappropriate for Sandusky, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, Boston, and Charleston. On the other hand, it's gorgeous music sustained over nearly nine minutes—no small feat.

The performances are all first-rate. Balances, particularly in the texturally tricky Christus Apollo, are nothing short of miraculous, and the recorded sound is Telarc's usual outstanding.

S.G.S.  (July 2002)