So often, when mainstream movie composers write for the concert hall, you can still smell the popcorn. Not with Elliot Goldenthal, whose For Trumpet and Strings had its premiere at Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia without any of the symphonic noir that marked his Batman Forever score. In fact, the piece asserted itself with such a distinctive personality that it was easily the most engrossing piece in the orchestra's season-opening program Sunday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.
The competition was serious: Mozart's Symphony No. 31 ("Paris"), a little-known Frank Bridge Lament and Haydn's Trumpet Concerto, which reminded you how much modern trumpeters need fresh repertoire. By the time Goldenthal's piece arrived on the second half, you were ready for Norwegian player Tine Thing Helseth to break out of the 18th century and into the 21st. That's what Goldenthal did. Audience response was muted, but so is the piece.
The title For Trumpet and Strings recalled some of the ultra-generic monikers from the late experimental composer Morton Feldman — which is not what you'd expect from the composer of such graphically descriptive works as the ballet Othello and the opera Grendel (which I know better than Goldenthal's music).
Improvisation was said to be part of the mix: Instrumentalists were given a collection of pitches that they could play in whatever order they want — within certain limits. But no musical mechanics were apparent to the naked ear, no doubt thanks in part to music director Dirk Brosse's sympathetic leadership. The orchestra created a quietly undulated foundation whose emotional effect was that of pregnant ambiguity. The music felt foggy but with the suggestion of great things that were just out of reach.
On top of that came a searching series of long held notes that constituted what the composer described in his program notes as being an aria of sorts. Occasionally plucked basses felt like temporary anchors, or even some sort of code telling you where you were. No clear sense of direction was apparent, but never did the music feel aimless.
Soloist Helseth played with a kind of deep expressivity that she often tried to bring to the Haydn concerto — when the music's formality allowed. Goldenthal allowed her to be a lonely voice in the wilderness — in music that was far more restrained than what one is used to from Goldenthal until some of the final trumpet notes that almost felt like stuttering sound files.
It was a penetrating effect. Goldenthal also contributed a cadenza to the aforementioned Haydn concerto (which went reasonably well) that was a catalog of trumpet effects that have evolved since the Haydn concerto was written in the 18th century. The trumpeter, by the way, won points in my book for being barefooted — if that's what it took for her to feel at home in Philly.
The rest of the concert showed that Brosse does have work to do this season: Though the Mozart symphony was spirited, details and passage work was smudgy, and the string sound needs refinement. You also heard a lack of that quality in the Malcolm Arnold Serenade for Small Orchestra, whose three movements — all fun in their own way — seem to have been written for separate pieces.
The first had a collage of competing motifs; the second had suave almost-pop tunes; and the last movement owed much to Arnold's British contemporary William Walton. Bridge's Lament, though, is a significant find. Inspired by the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, the piece doesn't rage or protest but seems to contemplate the quiet ocean after the ship's abrupt demise. Without explicitly saying so, the music conveys "Dona nobis pacem."