Pop Stars’ Quasi-Reunion: New Directions at Carnegie Hall

On Feb. 23 at Carnegie Hall, the American Composers Orchestra gave three pieces of music their world premiere and, in so doing, provided a reunion of sorts for two well-traveled musicians. Film composer Danny Elfman’s first orchestral work for the concert stage, Serenada Schizophrana, was the evening’s biggest event. Immediately prior to Mr. Elfman’s piece, the A.C.O., led by music director Steven Sloane, performed Ingram Marshall’s Dark Florescence: Variations for Two Guitars and Orchestra, featuring guitarist Andy Summers as one of the principal soloists. The last time Mr. Summers and Mr. Elfman had shared a bill was more than 20 years ago, in 1983. At that time, Mr. Elfman led the frenetic rock band Oingo Boingo; Mr. Summers was one-third of the Police-and a pop superstar.

“Andy Summers’ band actually gave us one of our first breaks,” Mr. Elfman, a Los Angeles native, recalled two days after the A.C.O. concert. He was nursing a low-fat cappuccino in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, his quietly intense 51-year-old face framed by thinning red hair and thick-rimmed glasses. The Police shared a manager, Miles Copeland, with Oingo Boingo. “They were the only major band that ever let us open for them in the 17 years we were together,” said Mr. Elfman. “They put us on the bill for some shows at the L.A. Forum, and it was a big deal. Suddenly our live audience multiplied tremendously. We picked up thousands of new fans from those concerts.

“I’m not even sure that they’re aware of what a great favor they did us,” he continued. “I’d wager they’re not.” Unfortunately, the A.C.O. concert didn’t change that. Mr. Elfman barely got a chance to chat with Mr. Summers backstage, and Mr. Summers was not available to comment for this story.

Messrs. Elfman and Summers have led busy lives since their last quasi-meeting. Following the Police’s breakup in 1986, Mr. Summers established himself as one of jazz-rock fusion’s more tasteful exemplars; a new compilation CD, The X Tracks (Fuel 2000), offers a fine sampling of his recent oeuvre. Mr. Elfman continued to front Oingo Boingo well into the 90′s, but eventually his soundtrack work became all-consuming. He began scoring Hollywood films in 1985 when he collaborated with director Tim Burton on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and the two have worked together frequently since. His many other credits include the themes to The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.

As rock musicians, Messrs. Elfman and Summers were nothing if not adventurous-and judging by the Carnegie Hall concert, that hasn’t changed. Though neither Mr. Elfman’s Serenada Schizophrana nor Mr. Marshall’s Dark Florescence could be called a complete success, both compositions were imbued with a winning, what-the-hell spirit that left one hoping for a repeat performance.

Ever since his days as a student of Morton Subotnick at the California Institute of the Arts in the late 60′s, Mr. Marshall has been enraptured by the modal gamelan music of Bali and Java and by the possibilities of blending electronics and live instrumentation. Both interests were on display in Dark Florescence. Mr. Summers played a striking, butterfly-shaped electric guitar whose tone was heavily processed; at one point, his distorted notes faded into a thick haze of reverb. The other guitarist, Benjamin Verdery, stuck with a more traditional classical instrument, but it too was amplified.

Oddly, the semi-improvised duet by the two guitarists, probably meant to be the piece’s heart, turned out to be its least compelling feature, as both players leaned on comfortable clichés. The guitarists’ thorny rhythmic interaction with the orchestra was far more interesting, and the somber closing section, in which the violins produced sliding harmonics that suggested the whistle of tracer bullets in the air, carried a potent emotional charge. Still, an imperfect sound balance between orchestra and amplified instruments dulled the overall impact. One suspects that Dark Florescence would make a better studio recording than a concert piece.

For Serenada Schizophrana, a 40-minute work in six unrelated movements, Mr. Elfman packed the stage with bodies and instruments. Two grand pianos lurked in the background, flanked by synthesizers, harps, an imposing stockpile of tubular bells and, for the final three movements, an eight-woman chorus. In keeping with the piece’s title, the music veered madly from Ellingtonian whimsy to Bernard Herrmannesque agitation.

As cascading dual piano lines melded with ominous pizzicato strings, it was almost impossible to keep from asking, “Which movie did this come from again?” No surprise, given Mr. Elfman’s pedigree. But several moments transcended the soundtrack pigeonhole. The tortured swing of the third movement conjured up the image of a jazz band on a storm-tossed raft, with trash-can cymbals acting as the crashing waves. And the furious horn-stoked climax and surprising last-second resolution of the closing movement made for a rousing finish.

Back at the Mercer Hotel in the aftermath of his Carnegie Hall debut, Mr. Elfman, who self-deprecatingly calls himself a “throwback” to the styles of early 20th-century Russian composers such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, revealed that Serenada Schizophrana had first been conceived as a chamber piece, to be performed in Carnegie’s more intimate Zankel Hall. Moving its premiere to a later date in the main Isaac Stern Auditorium meshed well with Mr. Elfman’s personal life (the original Zankel date had been set for the same week in January that his wife was due to deliver their new baby)-and the switch also gave him the opportunity to write something more ambitious. But when he flew into town a few months ago to visit the hall, he started wondering what he’d gotten himself into.

“I’d never been there,” he said, “and it was incredibly intimidating. I felt like a little kid in the playground of the big boys. I just thought, ‘I’m fucked. These walls are used to some serious shit, and they’re going to hear my notes bouncing around and simply reject them.’”

Mr. Elfman acknowledged that in the end everything had turned out just fine, and that he might even chance writing more concert pieces in the future. “But now,” he added enthusiastically, “I have something I can needle my son about for the rest of his life. I can say, ‘It’s your fault, Oliver! Because of you, they had to move me up to the big hall, and it was scary. The hall scared me, Oliver, and it was all your fault!’”