Friday, February 8, 2008

Atomic Music & Fossil Fuel Film

Last night I took a co-worker along to hear the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra play a world premiere...sort of. The piece was John Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony, with the composer on hand to take a bow at the end. Commissioned for the SLSO, it was originally slated to premiere last year, but the composer wasn't satisfied with it, so that performance was canceled and the symphony actually premiered in London. This, however, was the first public performance of a revised version of the Symphony, itself based on material from a 2005 opera about Dr. Oppenheimer and the development of the atom bomb.

Like other Adams pieces that I heard, it was an interesting combination of things - the broader harmony of modern music combined with a somewhat tonal sense of progression; complex rhythms, dissonances, and instrumental combinations combined with an ear for beautiful sonority and dramatic effect; lyrical tunes that come off as instrumental transcriptions of the original opera's vocal lines, combined with shattering passages of chaos and anxiety in which no tune at all could be discerned. It was unique and new, yet so appealed to popular taste that the audience received it with great enthusiasm - not at the beginning of a long program, as modern pieces are often placed, but at the end.

Also on the playbill was the Brahms Tragic Overture (that piece which one finds on about 7 out of 10 CDs of Brahms orchestral music in one's collection), the Sibelius tone poem Tapiola (the piece that makes me think of giant tree trunks with shadows moving between them), and the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, with guest pianist Radu Lupu - a Romanian luminary who looked quite relaxed playing Mozart's graceful concerto while seated not on a piano bench but on a chair. Every piece seemed excellently done from where I sat, full of sparkle and drive. I only wish I had been able to sit in a more acoustically advantageous spot. I was pretty much dead center on the ground floor, with the balcony overhanging my row by quite a bit. Things didn't blend very well from there, and I especially had trouble integrating wind instruments into the overall sound balance. I really prefer a nice upstairs seat.

Tonight, I took myself out to see a movie based on Upton Sinclair's book Oil! The film, currently nominated for some Academy Awards, is called There Will Be Blood. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and dominated by the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, it was long enough to make me desperate to go to the toilet (3 hours or so), but very impressive nevertheless. It does a good job of creating the look of the western U.S. between 1894 and the Depression years, as it follows the fortunes of an "oilman" named Daniel Plainview from a leg-breaking fall down a shaft where he is prospecting for silver to a brutal murder in the private bowling alley of his palatial home at the end of a long, ruthless career in the oil business. Wow, that was a long sentence.

The film explores Plainview's cynicism, anger, and competitiveness. These embroil him in a lifelong feud with a pentecostal preacher, a fateful relationship with the boy he raises as his son, and a steady, seemingly inevitable personal and moral disintegration. He descends so low that, by the end, you may wonder how he has managed to get so far in the world. It is not at all the kind of movie to lift your spirits. Even the long passages of little or no dialogue are filled with anguish and dread, enhanced a great deal by the music.

Day-Lewis's performance is fascinating. He often has the look of a man on the verge of going wild, of barely restrained savagery. That restraint gradually thins until, in the final handful of scenes, it utterly crumbles. One of the fascinating contradictions of his character is how gentle he is with the boy. Also, there is something very cultured about his voice - something that profoundly conflicts with one's expectations of a western prospector-turned-oil tycoon. On the other hand, there are moments when the Plainview character gets a little "too close" to a young girl named Mary...and in those moments I somehow sensed a certain danger, perhaps temptation. And when he realizes the man claiming to be his half-brother is an impostor...well, his face is such an open book, you know exactly what is going through his mind, what he is going to do about it.

The dual role of the local minister and his prodigal brother is played by the boyish Paul Dano (late of Little Miss Sunshine), who usually speaks with a measured calmness that comes off as exquisitely creepy. But when he is in his fire-and-brimstone mode, he is frightening in another way. On a few occasions when he really loses control, he is simply pathetic. It's hard to feel sympathy for such a disgusting character, but ultimately you do.

Filling out the cast are Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O'Connor, and the young Dillon Freasier as H. W., a boy whose upbringing is so strange that, hurtful as his final break with dear Dad is, it also comes as a relief.

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