Sunday, May 17, 2015

Elliot Goldenthal - A Composer Grows in Brooklyn

By Erica Miner

Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in classical music, Elliot Goldenthal is one of the most versatile of contemporary composers. His oeuvre includes film, opera, ballet, symphony and theater, as well as chamber music. He has won Oscar, Golden Globe and World Soundtrack Awards for Best Original Music for the film Frida (2002), directed by Julie Taymor, and last March received the ASCAP Founders Award in Los Angeles. Recently it was announced that Goldenthal has won the 1st annual Wojciech Kilar Award, celebrating the accomplishments of one of the most recognizable Polish film composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Goldenthal is best known for his film scores to Titus (1999), Frida (2002), Across The Universe (2007), The Tempest (2010) and most recently A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015), all directed by Julie Taymor, as well as the Neil Jordan films Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Michael Collins (1996), for which Goldenthal received Oscar nominations. He also composed original music and soundscapes for the Julie Taymor-directed play Grounded starring Anne Hathaway (, which opened on April 26 and runs through May 24 at the Public Theater in New York.

Three big Goldenthal projects take place this month. His ballet Othello will have its revival premiere as part of the American Ballet Theatre’s 75th anniversary season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with performances from May 19-21. The ballet, which received its Joffrey and Chicago premiere in 2009, was co-produced by American Ballet Theatre in partnership with San Francisco Ballet and choreographed by Lar Lubovitch. An album for Goldenthal’s Othello Symphony, which reworks the principal moments of the three-act music drama into a symphonic context, was released in April 2014. 

Also in May, Goldenthal’s Symphony in G Sharp Minor (Orange County Register’s Reger Award for “Best New Symphony”) will be released as an album. Beginning June 21, a cinematic theatrical experience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Julie Taymor with original music by Goldenthal, which had its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2014, will be released as a special event screening in selected theatres in the US, Canada and the UK. 

EM: Growing up in Brooklyn you didn’t come from a musical background. Yet you’ve composed so much music in so many genres. What led you on that journey? 

EG: My mother was a seamstress, my father a house painter, but everything around me was musical. My neighbors, literally in terms of walking distance - John Corigliano, who later became my teacher for seven years, was living on Church Avenue, Aaron Copland in downtown Brooklyn, and I was living in Flatbush. The environment of Brooklyn was very healthy and beneficial for young composers. And so many cultural characters passed through there - many ethnic influences and a very lively, if not loud, introduction to the world’s music. 

EM: So music surrounded you. 

EG: Classical music was being played all over. A lot of the Eastern Jewish families, Italian families, protected their old cultural heritage by playing Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi. That was very important. The young people of course were varying that. On a subway ride you got to hear all the greatest jazz inventors being played - Miles Davis, John Coltrane. Brooklyn was remarkable, so full of musical choices, so many wonderful tangible ways of experiencing music there during the 1960s and 70s. Everything seemed to be ingrown right there in the New York City area. The New York Philharmonic was at their peak at the time. Lenny Bernstein was reaching out to young people in a giant way, and Aaron Copland was his teacher, so I got to know Lenny in a very natural way being with Aaron and Lenny on many occasions, and was lucky enough to compose an anniversary piece for Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday. 

EM: I was lucky to have worked with Lenny at Tanglewood. 

EG: It was at Tanglewood that I first met Aaron. He said to me, “Elliot, I want you to meet my friend George.” It was George Balanchine. At 18 years old that’s a little awesome. 

EM: It must have made quite an impression. And New York sounds like a very rich musical atmosphere to have grown up in. 

EG: Absolutely. When Pierre Boulez took over the New York Philharmonic, you had a controversial yet whole different approach listening to music and presenting contemporary music. When Brooklyn Academy of Music presented Einstein on the Beach in the late 70s it was an alternative way of expressing yourself musically. New York City Opera was performing contemporary works and serious classical works. My opera, Grendel, was performed there. 

EM: Aside from Copland and Corigliano, did any other composers, either classical or film, influence you? 

EG: Bernard Herrmann was a big influence. Anyone who starts out as a 19-year-old writing Citizen Kane as a first movie - his last movie was Taxi Driver - and in between, all the great Hitchcock movies, is pretty special. Also European composers like Nino Rota, who composed Neo-Realist music - very melodic driven, most famous of which is of course the theme to The Godfather - all the brilliant works and operas he wrote. He was a very special person, always discovering, always creating wonderful things. That’s not to negate the avant-garde contributions in film and composition like Penderecki. 

EM: Speaking of which, congratulations on being the first to receive the Wojciech Kilar Award ( 

EG: Thank you. I’m very proud to be honored with this first Polish national prize next week. Kilar had a full, full career. Over 128 film scores, probably five symphonies, four operas. He just died recently in Poland. So to receive that award where Penderecki and Roman Polanski were on the board is a very proud thing for me. Shortly after that I have a giant concert of my four Shakespeare symphonic works, Titus Andronicus, Tempest and the Othello ballet - which is at the Metropolitan Opera this coming week - and Midsummer Night’s Dream, a movie that’s premiering June 15 and opening widely after that, which Julie Taymor directed. So it’s a really rich season for me.

 EM: You have a long-standing working relationship with Julie Taymor. Artistically speaking, what is the common ground for you? 

EG: Complexity in character. In Shakespeare no one character operates a single way. It’s all about complex reactions to other things in life. You can’t say, “He’s a bad guy, he’s a good guy, she’s the good daughter, she’s the bad daughter.” It’s very complex. Shakespeare has so many layers, a deep trough of philosophical thought. It’s not only dramatic but it has a philosophical state of mind. And it’s contemporary for all times, short of the details of history like Richard III or Henry IV. The content is absolutely contemporary, psychologically. 

EM: Contemporary and universal, and the characters are all interdependent. 

EG: That’s right. I’m also proud to share my Symphony in G# Minor, which just became available on May 12 on CD with the wonderful Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Carl St. Clair. I’m very happy about that release. They really played it beautifully. 

EM: As a violinist, I couldn’t help wondering why you chose that unusual key.

EG: I grew up in a very modest home in a lower middle class in Brooklyn. We had a ratty spinet piano. For some reason the only key that sounded good with full-bodied tone was A-flat. I used to go back and my fingers would land on A-flat because it sounded better. Through the years I remembered how comfortable I was in and around that key. It’s kind of obscure but a musician would know. You travel around the United States especially, everything is in B-flat. All the refrigerators, all the lights, all you hear is B-flat. Then when you get into the concert hall everyone starts to tune to A. It’s weird. You’re living in a B-flat world, an A world. when I start the piece in G# minor, it’s a different world, a different soundscape. Technically with the violins, I realize you don’t have many options with open tones there. The sections come together like a community, because everyone’s listening to each other in a good way, being very careful of the intonation, perhaps another level of concentration. You really do have to think about it because it’s not something that naturally comes from the open D. It’s apart from that.

EM: Interesting concept. I’m picturing placing my finger on a G# on the D string. I’m really glad I asked that question. 

EG: If you listen through the whole first movement, it sort of grounds around G#, then comes to this big expansive Adagio, then lulls you back into G#. All of a sudden with absolutely purity, a tutti orchestra B minor chord finally comes in, just a single forte, not triple forte, without pushing it too much. People jump out of their seats when they hear all these open strings playing, and open tones in the woodwinds. Boom!

EM: It comes out of nowhere and has great shock value, but also a bit of a relief? 

EG: A relief, yes. To hear those overtones functioning in that way. 

EM: You’ve also written an opera, Grendel.

EG: Yes. It was performed at New York City Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Very successful run. It’s grand opera, a big piece. Children’s chorus, soloists, large 88-piece orchestra. I was lucky to have it performed and I’d be happy about that leading to another performance, sometime while I’m still alive perhaps [Laughs]. Still working on and improving it. Los Angeles has been very good to me. California in general because they co-commissioned the Othello ballet, the Symphony, and my oratorio Fire Water Paper, which Seiji Ozawa toured with the Boston Symphony Orchestra throughout the US, including Carnegie Hall. So that connection in California is very rewarding to me. 

EG: Would you be open to L.A. Opera commissioning another opera from you? 

EG: Absolutely. They were extremely supportive. I know (L.A. Opera CEO) Christopher Koelsch is trying to drum up some ideas. Placido was very strong in presenting what I wanted without meddling. 

EM: As we wrap up, is there anything you would like to add? 

EG: Last year at this time I released my first string quartet piece, The Stone Cutters. I’m very proud of the performance that’s available on CD with the Flux Quartet. It starts out very complex, gets simpler and simpler and ends on a very lyrical, simple note. Almost like a path of a person who needs to scurry around in his life very industriously, then toward the end everything gets simpler and rather beautiful. 

EM: I look forward to hearing it. Thank you so much for sharing your many accomplishments with us. 

EG: And thank you.

Photo used by permission of: Marco Guerra (Elliot Goldenthal), Joan Marcus (Grounded), Gene Schiavone (Othello)
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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