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Walking with stars

Composers on Hollywood BoulevardI spent Christmas/New Year in Los Angeles. It’s my other favourite city. Lest you think I’m mad, let me say why. I don’t focus on the cars and freeways. I notice coyotes in the hills, snow-capped peaks, citrus, sun and birdsong. I see the boundaries of old ranches on the street maps. Mostly, I see the movies.

I walked around Hollywood and admired the mural on the eastern wall of Hollywood High School. It depicted alumni – Laurence Fishburne, Judy Garland, Carol Burnett…You can’t blame Hollywood for celebrating movie actors. But then, on Hollywood Boulevard, I stopped dead in my tracks. There, memorialised in the pavement, was the name of Joseph Szigeti, cited for his work in the recording industry. I’d had no idea that classical musicians were honoured with stars on the Walk of Fame. But then I saw more of them – Lotte Lehmann, Pierre Monteux, Igor Stravinsky, Lauritz Melchior.

I remembered then that classical music was once mainstream. I guess I’m talking about the 1940s, the 50s at a pinch. Bugs Bunny could put a mop on his head and everyone knew he was mocking Leopold Stokowski. The Three Stooges could murder ‘the Sextet from Lucy’, and the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor was familiar enough for the joke to float.

What went wrong? Could you do that now? Could Jay Leno include Gustavo Dudamel in his nightly spiel and raise a laugh?

Two recent articles got me thinking about this even more. The first was a story in Hawaii Magazine about the resurrection of a symphony orchestra on Oahu. The Hawaii Symphony Orchestra has risen to replace the Honolulu Symphony which collapsed last year after operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for almost a year. They gave their debut performance on 4 March, and have announced their calendar until May. What struck me most however was the program they’re offering – Beethoven, Brahms, Brahms, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart… Fair enough, they don’t want to scare away an audience, but is Sibelius, Rachmaninov and Rodrigo as much of the 20th century as an audience can take? Arutunian, represented by his trumpet concerto, is still alive, and they’ve scheduled Tan Dun’s Internet Symphony, but the common language dates back to the middle of last century. The mid century, I suppose, after which there was a dreadful disconnect between orchestral repertoire and most of the modern world.

Then I opened up Toronto’s Globe and Mail, which was carrying an interview with Peter Eötvös. ‘Never give what the public asks’ it was headed, and the story talks about how little it matters to Eötvös whether the hard-edged contemporary music he champions has achieved widespread popularity.

These two stories portray a gulf. You’ve got sticking (mostly) with what’s safe on one hand, and a perfectly contented lack of concern about public response on the other. I wonder how far Hollywood would have come with such attitudes? ‘Who cares if you watch?’ Can you imagine a film executive echoing Milton Babbitt’s ‘Who cares if you listen?’

Yet Hollywood keeps pumping out new films all the time. Not all of them are brilliant, sure. But most Hollywood films are okay. Some are very good. A few each year ‘push the envelope’ (to use that ‘cutting edge’ term). It’s probably about the same proportion of enduring excellence that you got in mid 19th-century Italy, where Verdi, Ponchielli and Boito stood above the ruck. And all Hollywood movies play to audiences that classical music would kill for.

What does Hollywood do that’s different, I wondered. I stopped in a bookstore and browsed through a screenwriting magazine. ‘A lot of the cuts are from the first act,’ said screenwriter Dustin Lance Black in an interview about the Clint Eastwood film, J. Edgar. ‘Some of it was in the Bruno Hauptmann story….at a certain point it was clear enough and we didn’t want the audience to be ahead of it.’ What! ‘We didn’t want the audience to be ahead of it’? They’re conscious of where the audience is in relation to their storytelling? I wondered if this might offer a clue. It seems to be completely the opposite of what Eötvös seems to be saying. Is this the sensitivity that disappeared in classical music sometime in the 20th century?

I wondered if Rachmaninov and Sibelius thought this way. As I went back through Beverly Hills, Rachmaninov’s old suburb, I thought, ‘Nah, probably not. They would have been expressing themselves too, and if it happened to gain them an audience, all the better.’ But then, they and their audience shared a common language.

Gordon Kalton Williams © 2012