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A double life

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How does a good Hungarian boy, trained in the best conservatories in Leipzig, Germany, end up as the dean of film music composers in Hollywood?

Until the mid-1940s, many respected classical composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Milhaud, Honegger and Copland wrote film music on the side and enjoyed it (and the money they made). But after the war, composing for film became a profession in itself, looked down upon by academia and the mainstream classical world. Most composers who wrote for this genre rarely ventured to write for the concert hall. The best-known exceptions were two expatriates, Miklós Rózsa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and, in later years, John Williams.

Classical musicians on the West Coast, such as the violinist Jascha Heifetz, encouraged these composers to write for the concert hall. However, they were, by and large, unabashed romantics--which is why they composed such successful film music scores--and never ventured far from the late 19th-century idiom. They ignored the cerebral road of serialism and most 20th-century experiments. Considering the grip atonality had in the world of "high art" in midcentury, it's not surprising that their old-fashioned flavor relegated these works to obscurity. Only in the last few years, with tonality--though modified--coming back in fashion, have the works been returned to circulation.

Last Friday and Saturday, the North Carolina Symphony, in its Raleigh Classical Series, presented the Violin Concerto Op. 24 by Miklós Rózsa, a work that has lain nearly dormant since its premiere by Heifetz 44 years ago. The soloist was violinist Robert McDuffie, who has made a name for himself by specializing in midcentury romanticism, recording such works as Bernstein's Serenade and the William Schuman, Samuel Barber and Miklós Rószsa violin concertos.

Rózsa (1907-1995) is best known for the more than 100 film scores he wrote, starting with Knight Without Armor in 1937 and including such blockbusters as Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, King of Kings, El Cid, Spellbound and The Green Berets. He started his film career writing for British film mogul Alexander Korda, also a Hungarian, and moved with him to the United States in 1940.

Written with the advice (and consent) of Heifetz, who premiered the work in 1956, Rózsa's Violin Concerto is highly challenging, both technically and musically, with rapid shifts of mood and tempi, especially in the first movement. McDuffie's command of the music was outstanding and brought out every nuance. Maestro Zimmerman did some of the best orchestral accompanying we have heard for some time. He was sensitive to the soloist and constantly modulated the orchestral sound to keep it in balance with the violin. Considering that probably most of the orchestra musicians have never played this work before, their sound was precise and assured.

As for the Concerto itself, we hope its popularity will increase. While it will not count among the great works of the 20th century, it is a worthwhile addition to the repertoire. The first two movements bear a clear resemblance to the Violin Concerto by Samuel Barber, although its texture is heavier and the solo part more demanding. The third movement harks back to Rózsa's Hungarian origin, with the strong folk nature of the country fiddler and stomping feet. Coincidentally, this month saw the release of McDuffie's recording of the concerto with the Atlanta Symphony. If you missed the performance, you can pick up the CD.

The other work on the program was Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the Pastorale. In midcentury, when conductors like George Szell, Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter set the tone for the Beethoven sound, the Pastorale did not describe a stroll through the countryside so much as a hike in boots and lederhosen. Since then, the approach has become more relaxed and fluid. But Zimmerman's interpretation, while beautifully performed, had a laconic, almost bored quality. It was a little too laid-back and could have stood some of the energy and dynamic contrast that he put into the Rózsa concerto. The woodwind solos, especially in the second movement, were outstanding. EndBlock

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