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Danny Elfman
Serenada Schizophrana
John Mauceri, Conductor
(Featured in the Soundtrack to IMAX Deep Sea 3D)
Composed and produced by Danny Elfman
Sony Classical  

I work so hard trying to make a few bucks
I pass the hours in a dream
The sweat keeps rolling off the tip of my nose
There’s only one thing keeps me on my feet
—Oingo Boingo, “Wild Sex (in the Working Class)”

Yep, but what really keeps Mr. Elfman going is composition folks (now, now this is a family web site)!

How did it happen? How did Mr. Elfman go from alternative “working class” rock singer/musician to being one of the foremost film (and now, symphonic classical) composers, renowned the world round for his scores to such films as Tim Burton’s Batman, Spider Man 2, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Night Breed and many others? I used to be (and still am) a big fan of Elfman’s now-defunct but very popular rock and roll band Oingo Boingo, which married arch lyrics with Elfman’s sort-of “demented Bryan Ferry” vocals, and his formidable backing band who played fun, brainy, slightly macabre rock music to often sold out crowds, especially in LA which is where Boingo hailed from, and where they had their biggest cult following, perhaps, but were also somehow able to score “hits” such as their single “Stay,” which was huge in Brazil and South America, apparently, during the late 1980s.

But the past twenty years have seen Elfman’s solo career grow into a multimedia institution of sorts, and now with Serenada Schizophrena, it appears Elfman joins the ranks of original classical composers.

Elfman’s auspicious classical “debut” is divided into six   movements, with titles such as “Pianos,” “the Quadruped Patrol,” and “Bells and Whistles,”with a brief (00:49) “End Tag” to finish things off. The CD also contains an eighth track, billed as a bonus track, entitled “Improv for Alto Sax” which combines piano, orchestra and an alto sax solo by Dan Higgins.

According to Elfman’s liner notes, the piece was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra in New York, and had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in February 2005, Steve Sloane conducting.

Elfman cites Bartok, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky alongside obvious film composing heros such as the incomparable Bernard Herrmann and Nino Rota, but after a listen or two to the pieces included here, one can’t help but hear as much of the film composers’ influence on Elfman’s writing, if not more so, than the former composers. A touch of Ennio Morricone might be in there too, though just a touch.

Knowing Elfman’s fine work for films like Batman, I expected much of Serenada to be dramatic, probably loud, and   illustrative of some “movie of the mind,” if not for this IMAX 3D film some of this was excerpted for, which I haven’t seen as yet.   I wasn’t disappointed, the Serenada is classic Elfman, dramatic, loud (at times), ominous and evocative; “the Quadraped Patrol” suggests we’re being stalked by a gang of feral beasts of some kind on the Serengetti plain, whilst “Blue Strings” suggests a passage for some fictitious Jules Dassin 1940s-50s film noir thriller.

I also expected high drama from Elfman, and I wasn’t disappointed; the overall mood here is dark, ominous, dramatic, grand, and the orchestra brings a lushness and richness to the music.

The track “I Forget” contains a text sung in Spanish by Elissa Johnston, and though my Spanish is rusty I can get the gist with lines like “escritos en papel que hace tiempo boté”; the text is a call-and-response bit of poetry that is mysterious in the extreme. Elfman’s hand, having written, moves on, but it would’ve helped some to have an English translation of this piece, although the vocals are beautiful enough to simply listen to, if one chooses, and Johnston’s performance is first-rate.

Overall, Serenada Schizophrana is an enjoyable foray for Elfman into original, non-filmic orchestral music; I’m not sure how much replay value it has, as much of the music here is quite powerful and almost “exhausting” in its demands on the listener, but it certainly also shows that Elfman can easily step out of the film composer role, and do almost anything he wants to, signifying even greater original pieces from him in the future. I would enjoy seeing Elfman turn 180 degrees for his next effort, and come up with something more minimalist, quiet, and/or subtle.

My only criticism of this CD is that sometimes it’s slightly over the top, but it does show a great degree of control and maturity. I would recommend this CD to Elfman fans, and classical listeners in general who would like to get a preview of a real composer to watch, not that Elfman’s already considerable resume needs much introduction. This points the way towards a whole new chapter for him, and he pulls this one off without pretense or straining things, which is also a positive sign of even greater things to come.

One thing that irked me a bit is that this CD is encoded for both regular CD players and SACD super audio players, the latter of which can play this back in Dolby Digital surround sound, but one must own an SACD/DVD player that is capable of such playback, and my DVD player is a new SONY
and it still can’t reproduce the SACD track. This strikes one as a bit of a scam on the part of SONY, who invented SACD (I believe), although my humble home Dolby Digital surround system was able to reproduce a fair facsimile when I hit the Dolby encoding button on the control unit, so I managed to get a good approximation of what the actual 5.1 mix would be like on an SACD player, and it really sounded sumptuous in that mode (it’s more like the older Dolby Pro Logic surround format when I listen this way).

I hope SACD will become more of a common feature on most DVD/CD players in the near future, so we won’t be forced to purchase five different units just for the privilege of playing a CD or two’s 5.1 surround mix!  

Hopefully when we all end up upgrading to Blu-Ray or HiDef. DVD players in five years, we’ll be able to play discs like this as a matter of course. As it stands now, SACD is a rich man’s novelty item, which is somewhat absurd considering even some of the lowliest DVDs these days are encoded with Dolby Digital or even DTS surround mixes that any DVD player can play back provided your system/receiver is set up for surround sound. There are also some newer CDS that contain a regular 5.1 surround mix on them, that any DVD player can reproduce, so there’s not much excuse for this type of exclusivity. I know SACD is an audiophile format, but really now!

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Piano Concerto  
Bugurodzica – Grey Mist –
Koscielec Waldemar Malicki, Piano – Wieslaw Ochman, Baritone Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra
Antoni Wit, conductor
NaxosSometimes being blissfully ignorant is actually a good thing, as I found out upon receiving this CD to review. Not knowing Kilar at all before listening to this collection of pieces, I didn’t bring any preconceptions to it, which was refreshing from both a reviewing and enjoyment standpoint. Of course, later when I found out that Kilar also composed the excellent score to a rather mediocre film, namely Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, (1992)

I realized I did indeed “know” his work, in a sense. I recall being underwhelmed by the film but struck by the dynamic, intense, and distinctly, frostily eastern European nature of much of the score. Hearing the centerpiece (and most recent) Piano Concerto (1997), and such pieces as Koscielec 1909 , it makes perfect sense now that Coppola would hire Kilar to score Dracula, and after hearing the whole thing, I felt that I had “discovered” someone important and unique, in much the same way I felt when I first heard the music of Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Brian Eno, or even Bob Dylan or David Bowie for that matter.

In the liner notes Richard Whitehouse mentions that Kilar’s influences for the Piano Concerto include “the Catholic liturgy” and “the piano concertos of Beethoven,” and I hadn’t even read this yet when I realized that somewhere during the middle of the piece, Kilar sneaks in a distinct quote from Beethoven’s 5th, or it’s at least reminiscent of the famous opening staccato string stanza of that work, but Kilar accomplishes this in such a subtle, brief manner it’s almost subliminal; however, it’s easy to see the influence by the end of the piece.

The opening piece, Bogurodzica (Mother of God), which dates from 1979, gives a good introduction of what’s to come, being a loud (in the best possible sense), dynamic, striking piece with various mini-crescendos occurring amidst a “holy terror” type chorus, the piece evokes divinity, battle, and love of country in equal turns. This CD was also my introduction to the venerable Warsaw Philharmonic, which is absolutely in top form here, and plays these pieces flawlessly and with great passion, percussion, and precision. Sometimes I find extremely loud classical music taxing, irritating, or fatiguing, but although Kilar’s work here is hardly ever really “quiet,” excepting perhaps the opening of the haunting Koscielec and Grey Mist, it demands the listener’s participation and rapt attention, and the crescendos are always for a good reason, never “bludgeoning.”

The manner in which Koscielec starts off so quietly, if ominously, and then slowly builds, reminds me of Xenakis’ classic electro-acoustic La Légende d’Eer (1977), a work written in a totally different medium but sharing similar traits, including that both pieces were inspired by myth, legend, or storyline of a monumental figure’s descent, in Xenakis’ case the Greek myths, in Kilar’s the story of the tragic death of key Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, who perished in a skiing accident in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland; in either case, both composers clearly had Greek tragedy in mind. I also enjoyed the piece Siwa Mgla (Grey Mist), (1979) which combines a baritone vocal performed by Wieslaw Ochman, and orchestra, and which is described as one of Kilar’s tone-poems. Sometimes I feel that vocals combined with orchestral pieces are better left to the opera, but when this combination of elements is done well, as it is here, the vocals become of a piece with, and integral to, the work, and Ochman’s baritone here works to haunting effect combined with the orchestral performance.

As always, Naxos delivers a stupendous release with almost 70 minutes of music, with informative liner notes and libretti one can access on their web site, thus keeping the CD to a budget price but still not skimping on packaging and informative texts on the composers and performers. I found out quite a lot about Kilar from the included booklet, and that’s no small feat for a budget-priced label; Whitehouse’s liner notes and biographies inform and entertain, while describing the pieces included here so that even the neophyte listener will come away from this CD with a real appreciation and knowledge of Kilar and the musicians involved. This CD should be required listening to any composer or classical aficionado who wants to hear a demonstration of how libretto, vocals, and instrumental music can be combined to devastating effect and NOT be grating, dull or irritating, but rather sublime, exciting and haunting.

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