The Shock of the Nude

Music critics say classical has croaked, but anybody who watches TV or listens to radio hears it all the time, probably without realizing. Dvorak's New World Symphony helps lure job hunters to NBC plugs its sitcom lineup with the mock horror of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. Beethoven's Choral Fantasy lends stately airs to a big Wall Street brokerage house. Madison Avenue uses a friendly tune from Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole to hawk family cars.

If the music really died, it has been reincarnated to an active life promoting consumerism. Are the jingle writers getting lazy? Or could this be a benevolent scheme to keep classical music alive in the collective consciousness?

“I'd like to think there's redeeming value there,” says composer Richard Henn. “But my instincts are, from working with agencies, that they're merely targeting a demographic. They just want to associate their product subliminally with a certain set of values. . . . I know Gershwin's people are raking it in for 'Fly the friendly skies' or whatever that thing is.”

Henn knows the ABCs of art and banality. He put himself through music school writing jingles for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell. Formerly the lead in '60s surfer band the Sunrays, he has been studio-session arranger to the cool (Leon Russell, Johnny Rivers), the uncool (Helen Reddy, the Captain N Tennille) and the ice-cold (Fabian). He even tried his hand at producing before deciding that shit wasn't for him. “I had to be more of a policeman than a creative person, keeping the booze and drugs out of the studio, the girls and all that,” he says.

Locally, he has been in charge of music at the Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters since 1979 (presumably keeping the drugs, booze and girls out of the pit). What he does there is roughly on a par with what those commercial ads do, tapping into a well-established musical vernacular to push all the right buttons. Only he does it in the service of “art.”

This paper has generally cast a jaundiced eye toward the Pageant, a peculiar entertainment in which people in freeze-frame panels are made up to look like renderings from coffee-table art books. For the record, this writer is profoundly colorblind, crosses the street when the traffic signal turns white, and makes no pretense of being an art critic. But it's safe to say you won't be reading about the bourgeois, feel-good Pageant in the Weekly's Art pages unless they stage Goya's Third of May, 1808 execution scene or close the show with Serrano's Piss Christ.

The music's a different story. We still remember the bad old (pre-Henn) days when our mother used to drag us to the Pageant. The orchestra, a brass-reed pickup band, used to set the mood of every panel with annoying sameness. Rubenses, Renoirs and Riberas alike were rung in with schmaltzy trumpets in swooning parallel thirds—more technically, quasi-Broadway shit—as if to summon Judy Garland from the crypt for a wailing torch song.

That changed when Henn arrived. He's a working stiff whose job it is to make the “art” onstage say what it doesn't already say for itself. So forgive us if we tend to mistake the Pageant for a concert. But during the current summer, when the Pacific Symphony's outings at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre are all firecracker fluff, Henn and his orchestra make the Irvine Bowl seem like a music lover's oasis.

This year, the Pageant decided to do a 20th-century art retrospective—even chucked its beloved da Vinci Last Supper for Dali's ghostly version—so we decided to check out how Henn solved the problems of scoring Picasso and his brethren.

There's no listing of musical numbers in the Pageant's program book, so concertgoers are on their own. At the top of the show, we splashed into Ravel's glittery Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, evoking the Paris Exposition of 1900, then bathed in the cool sensuality of Stravinsky's Firebird while they displayed a Lalique glasswork.

The narrator gave us a quickie lesson on the connection between African masks and Cubism, accompanied by primeval drums. Then the chunky, angular whores of Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon came on—we're guessing they had to be played by hefty farm girls who lift cows—the orchestra hit a Stravinskian 1920 Paris mode, and voila! The Shock of the New. Later, when a Picasso was displayed next to a John Singer Sargent, Henn's original music sealed the shotgun marriage with musty harpsichord and jarring cluster chords.

We were mostly oblivious to the art flashing by, but we listened with admiration as Henn's small band played big scores, like Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe with MIDI chorus, Mahler's cosmic Resurrection Symphony and Bruckner's mighty Seventh. We enjoyed the Soviet realism of Vera Mukhova's proletariat statuary, attended by something that sounded like the Internationale. There were nods to Fats Waller, Chubby Checker and Little Richard. But we wanted to laugh out loud when Henn paired the upper-crust British urbanity of William Walton's jazzy Lily O'Grady with the Americana hokum of a Doris Lee oil showing a gaggle of kitchen wives on Thanksgiving Day. It shouldn't work, but it does—beautifully, in fact. Only how the hell did he come up with that?

We asked Henn how he works. “I put a picture that I'm gonna score for the Pageant on the piano,” he explains. “Then I get very, very quiet. I start listening, then improvising. And then I start coming up with themes and orchestral colors that I want to use. I have a pencil and a blank piece of 12-stave music paper, and I catch all my ideas there.”

He says he works best late at night, mostly between midnight and sunrise. “There're fewer people trying to think about how to screw their brother or create wars or destroy the world or overtake this corporation or merge that one. Less of that's going on in your immediate vicinity. It's very clear, and a lot of great ideas can come through you.”

Richard Henn and the Festival of the Arts orchestra perform with pretty picture accompaniment at the Pageant of the Masters, Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Dr., Laguna Beach, (800) 487-3378. Nightly, 8:30 p.m. Through Aug. 29. $10-$50.

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