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CD Reviews: Viva Zapata! & Michael Kamen's Opus

Viva Zapata! ****

ALEX NORTH

Varese Sarabande VSD-5900. 14 tracks - 31:58

Alex North is such a misunderstood commodity that many are probably unaware that he ever scored a western (or anything other than A Streetcar Named Desire and Spartacus). His Cheyenne Autumn has long been one of the most original and powerfully dramatic works in the genre, and Viva Zapata!, while not matching that work in length, is similar in the way it blends an ethno-geographical flavor with the kind of emotional, modernistic writing North brought to his epics like Spartacus and Cleopatra. The two western scores in particular seem closely related to Spartacus because all three films cover the struggle for freedom by the oppressed, expressed on an epic and often brutal canvas. Viva Zapata! doesn't contain the martial stridency of Spartacus or the stoic dignity of Cheyenne Autumn, speaking instead through the gentle optimism of traditional Mexican melodies. But all three erupt with North's full-blooded orchestral writing and bellicose rhythms.

"Zapata" is a driven introduction for Marlon Brando's character, in the character of some of the percussive travel sequences from Spartacus with its wild xylophone and flute figures and powerful, odd-metered rhythms. "Gathering Forces" (a piece conductor Jerry Goldsmith frequently puts into his concert repertory) is a textbook example of the differences between how scores used to work in films and how they work today: North was able to mix the exciting rhythms we associate with action music with dramatic development so that his music actually said something other than "this scene is supposed to be exciting." "Huerta" has some of the same effect, blending unexpected dissonances and stretching out jagged motifs through the piece to add to the unfolding drama; the final moments of the cue parallel the prelude to the storming of the Roman military camp by the slaves in Spartacus.

While this is an enjoyable album and it's wonderful to hear the complete North score in any form, this newly performed Viva Zapata! suffers from some of the pitfalls of Varese's approach to recording the Scottish National Orchestra. Although it's not as distant-sounding as Patton, there's still a sense that we're really not hearing everything; that we're witnessing a concert performance rather than an actual film score. The performances don't have the snap and power of Goldsmith's recording of 2001 or the intimacy of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, both of which superbly recreated North's original sound, which is so sharp-edged and dynamic that it requires a more focused recording set-up.

The bottom line is that these are great recordings to have, but they shouldn't supplant the originals--let's hope someone puts out North's recording of Viva Zapata! someday soon. --Jeff Bond


Michael Kamen's Opus *** 1/2

Michael Kamen

London 289 458 912-2. 12 tracks - 48:45

We've been flooded with composer retrospectives of late, and certainly Michael Kamen has scored enough movies to warrant his own album of film themes. Thus, here comes yet another trip down memory lane, with, thankfully, Kamen himself at the podium. The result is a well-chosen, straightforward collection of newly recorded tracks from Kamen's most renowned scores, nicely packaged with notes from the composer (a la Elfman's Music from a Darkened Theater). Die-hard (excuse the pun) Kamen completists won't find a lot of unreleased, bone-crunching action music, but it all provides a smooth, cohesive listening experience.

This Opus opens with five selections from Kamen's best-known scores: the "Overture" and lovely "Maid Marian at the Waterfall" from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves are given a faithful rendering by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; "Rowena" from Mr. Holland's Opus is an enchanting, flowing piece along the lines of the Maid Marian music; "Dona Ana" reflects both the yearning strings and jaunty playfulness of Kamen's terrific score from Don Juan De Marco; and "You're the One," the love theme from Circle of Friends, is performed in a beautiful new arrangement featuring Kamen himself on piano.

From there, the album ventures into selections from Kamen's earlier efforts: The atmospheric "Marooned" from the Aidan Quinn-starrer Crusoe, the rousing "There Can Be Only One" training montage from Highlander, and "Magic City" from Kamen's first feature score, the 1976 Sean Connery film The Next Man. These offer a dramatic contrast to the serene compositions that preceded them; Crusoe in particular has an exotic setting which affords Kamen the chance at utilizing more colorful orchestrations.

Also sandwiched in the disc's back-end is a track from last year's The Winter Guest, "Stromness," featuring a theme composed by Kamen for the third movement of his Saxophone Concerto, here with Hugh Seenan's horn filling in for David Sanborn's sax. A brief non-action cue from Die Hard (under two minutes) precedes a lengthy selection from the 1986 Martin Campbell made-for-British-TV film Edge of Darkness, for which Kamen collaborated with guitarist Eric Clapton. Tomoyasu Hotel subs for Clapton here, and the mix of orchestra and electric guitar recalls Kamen's work on the Lethal Weapon films--none of which, surprisingly, is represented on the album. It all concludes with Kate Bush performing "Brazil," which, despite having been written by Ary Baroso, fits within the context of a composer compilation due to Kamen's sublime arrangement of the theme throughout Terry Gilliam's 1985 fantasy.

The Seattle Symphony does a good reading of Kamen's themes, with the Circle of Friends and Winter Guest selections having been recorded with the London Metropolitan Orchestra. Packaging is colorful, featuring stills from several of the films, and the running time is just long enough to take in during one sitting. While some listeners will be disappointed by the lack car/plane/truck/boat chases, there should be enough to make this Opus appeal to almost everyone. --Andy Dursin

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