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The Symphony's Misbegotten 'Moon'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2000; Page C01

A plant growing where it shouldn't is a weed. An object for which you have no need or sentimental attachment is garbage. Extirpate the one, toss the other.

Last night, the National Symphony Orchestra offered nothing but weeds and garbage, music that doesn't belong in a concert hall, music that adds nothing to our understanding of the sentiments it strives to depict, music that has little use of any kind. It was two hours of despair and perhaps the worst single evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall this season. There have been bad performances, certainly, but bad performances are ephemeral. Last night's three new works--two of them world premieres, one of them an NSO premiere--make it plain that something is desperately wrong with the way new music is commissioned and performed in the United States. Something is broken.

Michael Kamen's "The New Moon in the Old Moon's Arms" was commissioned by Leonard Slatkin and the NSO, with money from the John and June Hechinger Fund. Kamen, a prominent Hollywood film composer who provided soundtracks for "Brazil," "Lethal Weapon," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and many, many other movies, doesn't need commissions. He's a rich man with lots of work. He'll always eat lunch in Hollywood.

Kamen has aspirations to write music of greater substance, music for the concert hall, but is unwilling to leave vulgarity behind. His music is serviceable in the sense that it fills time with consonant noises and a loose sense of emotional direction. But it is utterly forgettable, entirely dependent on cliche, scored in the usual sodden and overripe Hollywood manner, and absolutely lacking in content.

We tend to think of this kind of tonal tripe as an act of generosity to the listener: See, nothing that bites, nothing too astringent, nothing but nice thoughts and nice melodies and nice swells and climaxes. But if you had to have an extended conversation with someone who spoke entirely in cliches and repeated the same old stories, would you consider him generous for not taxing your concentration, or a horrible bore? Kamen is a bore.

His new symphony--"A Millennium Symphony" is the ominous subtitle--isn't merely prolix, it's also pretentious and pernicious. Each movement--"Echoes of Time" and "Reaching for the Stars" are characteristically gassy section titles--is preceded by a reading from Chief Seattle's speech. The chief was a 19th-century leader of the Suquamish tribe; he delivered his powerful if a bit muddled speech upon the ceding of his tribal lands to the United States.

Kamen's use of it is theft: He steals historical ideas and spiritual sentiments that have no relation to him, his music or his purpose (getting some legitimization in the concert hall). Perhaps he hopes that his movie music will absorb some of Chief Seattle's aura. But the words slide right off Kamen's music--despite the attempts to produce modal-sounding Native American tunes and the offensive aural caricature of tribal dancing--and he just looks pretentious. Anyone who cares about the Chief Seattle speech will probably find it cheapened, and that's pernicious.

Hollywood has attracted great composers--Bernard Herrmann, Max Steiner, Erich Korngold. But people who commission music should remember one thing: Great composers have occasionally gone there out of economic necessity, but composers who are creatures of Hollywood, no matter how successful or how much publicity they can generate, are rarely more than professional hacks. Save your commissioning money; if you want to hear Hollywood music, you can get all you need for eight bucks at the corner WB or Disney filling station.

So much for the weeds. The other new work, Richard Danielpour's "Voices of Remembrance," a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, is more professional and substantial. It is a homage to the three American martyrs of the tumultuous 1960s, John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. It is an elegy punctuated by violent outbursts (could those percussion bursts be gunshots?), ending with the harps plucking and the rest of the orchestra rising upward in a moment of generic transcendence. Pretty music, but pale when set beside other works that have taken 20th-century atrocities as their subject (music by Hindemith, Bernstein, Britten, Penderecki).

Danielpour is one of our better composers. In the past five years he has churned out, on average, two major orchestral pieces a year. Big orchestras play them. They're professionally produced, and they take the listener through a succession of familiar moods and feelings. They are solid but forgettable, literate but not lasting. No subscriber has ever complained too vigorously about Danielpour; but I doubt many have gone home changed by his music, either. Joan Tower's "Tambor," which opened the concert, is more of the same: high marks for everything but its soul.

The performances last night were solid first-time readings. The Guarneri String Quartet, which performed in the Danielpour, was a beacon of hope. Toshiko Kohno played the flute solos in the Kamen--long, meandering and nonsensical lines--very beautifully. The orchestra made it through an evening of music entirely unfamiliar to it; that's noteworthy.

But what about this miserable music? Slatkin needs to cast a wider net for new compositions, bypass the familiar faces from the big-grant-money circuit, and please, please, please, bypass the cheap and easy importations of pop culture.

 
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