Danny Elfman Scores Big in his Violin Concerto

Elfman Violin Concerto

WP 2019 - 2ELFMAN: Violin Concerto, “Eleven Eleven” / Sandy Cameron, vln; Royal Scottish National Orch.; John Mauceri, cond / Piano Quartet / Philharmonic Piano Quartet Berlin: Daniel Stabrawa, vln; Matthew Hunter, vla; Knut Weber, cello; Markus Groh, pno / Sony Classical 19075869752

This CD is clearly a case of “hang with them and don’t give up if you think they have talent.” Danny Elfman, younger brother of Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo founder and cult filmmaker Richard Elfman, has always been, in my view, a brilliant intuitive musician. As Richard once said in an interview, “Little brother Danny was always a nice kid who liked music, but then one day we discovered he was playing all these instruments and writing this brilliant music. It astonished all of us.”

But “little brother Danny” has spent much time writing film soundtracks, which he is clearly very good at but which frustrated his more serious side. As stated on the Sony Classical website:

Elfman has long felt that he had more to give than the music of his film soundtracks. “I don’t merely want to write music that is free from the influence of films,” he says. “Instead, it’s a compelling need.” For several years he has given this urge free rein and composes a work of New Music each year.

But only now has his composing reached a new level which is astonishing for the music world: Two years ago the Prague orchestra requested that he compose a violin concerto for Sandy Cameron. Elfman responded by composing the concerto as his first freestanding orchestral work. That he loves the late Romantic idiom and especially its masters shines through clearly in the violin concerto. But here it’s more like Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev have run into the groove of Beetlejuice.

Leave it to a major corporation’s publicity department to try to sell an outstanding piece of classical music by tying it to a commercial film success. Yes, I liked Elfman’s Beetlejuice score in and of itself in relation to the wacky comic film it was written for. Elfman is clearly a gifted film composer; of that, I had no doubt. But to try to sell this absolutely brilliant piece of music based on one of his old film scores is like trying to sell Mieczysław Weinberg’s wonderful orchestral and chamber music based on the cute but simplistic music he wrote for the Winnie the Pooh cartoons that the Soviets turned out in the early 1970s.

What Elfman has done here is more than just turned out a “violin-concerto-to-order.” He has honed his musical gifts to a fine edge and applied them in a completely non-commercial manner to music that is both intelligent and surprising. And truthfully, the Prokofiev reference is more apt than Tchaikovsky for the simple reason that he develops his themes much more along the lines of a Prokofiev concerto, not just in his harmonic choices but also in the rhythmic motifs with which he laces the work, several of which resemble Stravinsky in his neoclassic period. (In an online interview posted on YouTube, Elfman also credits the Shostakovich Violin Concerto which he says was the “template” for his own composition.)

Sony compares the opening theme of the first movement to Tchaikovsky, but this, too, is more like Prokofiev, or perhaps Samuel Barber. Yet Barber’s extended works often lacked the coherence and brilliance of his short ones. I consider Barber to have been a brilliant writer of relatively small pieces, the Adagio for Strings, the Essays for Orchestra, Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and his marvelous songs. Here, Elfman proves that he can build long structures—the first movement of the violin concerto runs 14 minutes while the second and fourth run over 10—in which the development sections are complex, imaginatively conceived and excellently scored. This is a work that would not have embarrassed Aaron Copland or Howard Hanson, and that’s saying quite a bit.

I think what surprised me the most was how idiomatic his writing for the violin soloist is, even the first-movement cadenza which is built around themes in that movement. Indeed, I’m here to tell you that I’ve heard a ton of modern classical pieces by a wide variety of composers in my career that I refused to review because the music wasn’t nearly as well constructed as this…and some of them were very famous names in the classical world.

The second movement, marked “Spietato,” is very much a cross between Prokofiev and Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, very lively with the kind of moto perpetuo rhythm that the latter composer loved to work with. Once again, Elfman gives virtuosic music to the soloist that ties into the themes and motifs. Nothing is rattled off for show; it all makes perfect musical sense. The third movement, “Fantasma,” is the slow one, and I was relieved to hear that Elfman did not resort to an easy solution. It would have been so easy for a composer of his experience to rely on a sentimental theme, but here he is clearly channeling Copland from his best period in crafting a theme that is simple but malleable, using somewhat modal harmonies as an underpinning and creating a craggy movement that is very emotional but not maudlin. There is also good tensile strength in the solo violin part which, again, fits into the surrounding material without sounding like a “virtuoso-playing-on-top” sort of thing.

In the fourth and last movement (“Giocoso; Lacrimae”), Elfman completely shifts his mood from serious (and, at times, almost brooding) to light and airy. Just as the second half of the first movement and most of the second resembled Stravinsky, this one is a cross between Prokofiev and Barber, but I rush to emphasize that none of the music sounds borrowed from these composers. He is clearly his own man as a writer and inspired enough to construct wholly original themes. At the 5:50 mark, Elfman suddenly explodes in a riot of orchestral color that he ties into the preceding material, and when it quiets down the violin soloist returns to play some very fine variations in a slower tempo. The tempo again increases and, at the 8:05 mark, the violin is again playing a very complex cadenza-like solo that acts more like a section of the orchestra in its development than like a solo distraction. Sandy Cameron is new name to me. She apparently dances, dips, shucks and jives while playing the violin (see her YouTube videos), and even appeared with Cirque du Soleil hanging from a rope by her heels while fiddling, but in a strictly aural venue such as this all I have is her talent to judge. She plays the entire score with great feeling and energy as well as a sensuous tone, and conductor John Mauceri (also new to me) conducts with equal fervor.

danny_elfman_62In the Piano Quartet, Elfman was lucky to get the highly gifted chamber ensemble of the Berlin Philharmonic. The first movement, “Ein Ding,” sounds a bit like minimalism due to its moto perpetuo rhythm in the opening, but Elfman interrupts it with pauses and overlays a long melodic theme played in whole and half notes over it. Rapid string tremolos introduce the development section. Still, the echoes of such minimalist composers as Terry Riley (whose music I like far more than that of Philip Glass) come and go throughout this movement. There are some lovely solos for the three strings, but in this movement, at least, the piano is treated more as a rhythmic motor than as a solo instrument.

“Kinderspott,” the second movement, is bitonal and a bit eerie, making the violinist and violist play on the edge of their strings and giving the piano strange chords which only begin to straighten out at about 1:12 but then return to bitonality as the tempo increases and all four instruments play rapid, upward-rising figures. (Play this movement for your sophisticated classical loving friends without telling them the composer and make them guess. It’ll drive them crazy because the music is so good and original but sounds like no one else.) Interestingly, as the music moves into the third movement, “Duett für Vier,” it almost sounds like an extension of the second: a similar rhythm, if more syncopated here, and themes which are variants of the ones just used. It’s almost as if Elfman had two different ideas on how to develop the music and chose to use both rather than toss one out. Very interesting!

“Ruhig” is the slow fourth movement, again using rhythmic motifs but this time in slow motion. The harmony is also more consonant in this movement although with a few interesting chord changes and altered chord positions thrown in for color. At 1:38, it’s also the slowest movement in the quartet. We end up our journey with the fifth movement, “Die Wolfsjungen,” and here Elfman moves away from the stiff motor rhythms of the first two movements to more syncopated figures. I hesitate to call them jazzy, but only just; played by an American quartet with some jazz experience (i.e., the Turtle Island Quartet), it might sound more so, but even as it stands here it is a lively and fascinating piece that surges forward like a manic Toscanini performance for quartet. It’s also very well developed and, in the final moments, the tempo increases as the players, performing in this movement more as a unit and less as four soloists, surge towards the finish line.

An absolutely astounding disc: superb new music given brilliant performances. I can only hope that this CD garners the serious attention it deserves and is not dismissed as a gimmick. Danny Elfman, as “big brother” Richard once said, has again “astonished all of us.”

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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