More gold than corn

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, composer to the stars.

The composer Virgil Thomson, never at a loss for a pithy quote, once came up with a brilliant credo: "Anything is all right if it is enough so." He could have been defending Erich Wolfgang Korngold's opulent romanticism, born in fin de si裬e Vienna and nurtured well into the 1950s, from those who criticized it for being anachronistic.

Seattle Symphony

Benaroya Hall, April 8

Korngold was a child prodigy, warmly praised by Mahler, who first captivated audiences with the opera Violanta when he was just 18. He later collaborated on theater music with director Max Reinhardt; when Reinhardt went to Hollywood to direct his film version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he sent for Korngold to adapt Mendelssohn's music.

The composer's consummate craftsmanship and gift for color and melody made him a natural for the burgeoning sound-film industry. He signed on with Warner Bros. and scored 22 films in 20 years, winning two Oscars and helping create Hollywood legend. Errol Flynn's career, for one, wouldn't have been quite the same without Korngold's smashing music for The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood. With Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman, Korngold rounds out my Holy Trinity of film composers. Not only is their music rich and gooey (and too over-the-top to be merely sentimental), but it also has a certain knowingness. If you listen hard, you can often hear in their scores an atom—just one—of sly send-up.

Korngold continued off and on to write concert works, and worked on the magnificent Violin Concerto from 1937 to 1945. It's splashy yet somehow aristocratic; its harmonies and melodies are intoxicating but clear cut. (One critic, in an unfair assessment, quipped: "More corn than gold.") Violinist Gil Shaham, whose 1994 Deutsche Grammophon recording established his ownership of the Concerto, played it with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony last week. I don't know if he's rethought the work, or if it's just the difference between a recording and a live performance, but his approach was slightly more aggressive and less poised and silky than on the CD.

The high point of Hugh Aitken's attractive Symphony, premiered at this concert, was the wonderfully peculiar second movement. Its unsettling passages overlapped intriguingly with a tune inspired by Indian music. Then, out of nowhere, came a series of unconducted percussion cadenzas. The SSO doesn't usually play this sort of thing, but it made for a provocative debut.

 
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