Meet Brian Wilson

David Hoppe

Two hundred and fifty years ago, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria. This means that today, wherever orchestras play, a birthday celebration is taking place. Mozart is being performed everywhere, which is a wonderful thing.

Of course, Mozart is always being played somewhere - also a wonderful thing, albeit a tad predictable. You could say that Mozart is a little like Shakespeare in this regard. Just as the Bard's plays provide people with a seemingly endless source of inspiration, Mozart's music has the proven ability to connect with something essential in almost anyone who has ears to listen.

Both of these artists continue to be towering figures and doubtless will remain so for generations to come. But Shakespeare, as playwright, can also be seen as part of a theatrical continuum that has constantly reinvented itself in order to connect with new times and new audiences. A theater that stages a production of Hamlet this month might also present a play by August Wilson and follow that with a piece by Sarah Kane, both of whom are writers whose work has emerged to differing, if significant, degrees since the 1960s.

Mozart's music, on the other hand, while too lively to be labeled a museum piece, lives in a milieu where it often seems as though time has stopped. Although contemporary orchestras, the Indianapolis Symphony included, strive to include works by 20th century composers in their repertoires, their musical menus are still dominated by works that were created before the invention of the Model T. This tendency has marginalized composers who have created work since 1950 and, arguably, narrowed the audience for so-called concert music to those people already familiar with "the classics."

Given the failing state of arts education in our schools, and the current tendency for people to experience culture as the customized consumption of goods and services with which they are already familiar, the future for certain forms of traditional arts experience could be diminished. What we consider the classics, in other words, may be changing.

This was brought home to me the other night when I watched a DVD a friend sent to me, Brian Wilson Presents Pet Sounds Live in London. Pet Sounds was an album written - some might say composed - by Brian Wilson for his band, The Beach Boys, in 1966. The album has long been a critic's favorite and served as an inspiration to other musicians, most notably Paul McCartney, who, it is said, cited Pet Sounds as a spark in the creation of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since that time, esteem for the album has continued to grow, especially in England, where Brian Wilson is considered to be a kind of god in much the same way that the French bow before what they perceive to be the genius of Jerry Lewis. In a recent poll, England's primo music magazine, Mojo, named Pet Sounds the greatest album of all time.

The Beach Boys, of course, were a notoriously troubled band, and Brian Wilson's bouts with mental illness became legendary. The consequence was that Pet Sounds was never played in its entirety and, for years, Brian Wilson was rarely seen in public.

With most rock albums, this would not have mattered much. But cutting Pet Sounds up for a greatest hits collection seemed to miss the point. Pet Sounds is one of those rare albums that demands to be considered as a whole. You might say it amounted to Brian Wilson's symphony for rock ensemble.

That's certainly how the sold-out crowd that filled Royal Festival Hall - a venue usually reserved for the London Symphony - seemed to treat it. What they experienced was a note-perfect rendition of the album from beginning to end, with the composer, Brian Wilson, in attendance.

Obviously, Wilson's presence was an important part of the draw. What soon becomes apparent, though, is how superfluous he is to the performance. Yes, he sings on all the songs where it's required without faltering - and that's a relief. But his voice is often doubled by another vocalist who sounds almost exactly like him. And the keyboard he sits behind is strictly decorative - Wilson doesn't appear to play a note. Finally, Wilson is hardly what you'd call charismatic. His movements are weirdly childish; he's like a kid going through the motions at a Spring Sing.

The rest of the band, on the other hand, plays masterfully, with undisguised joy. No wonder: Wilson's music and arrangements are sublime.

Someday, you realize, Brian Wilson will be gone. What this performance demonstrates is that not only will his music live on in recorded form, those sounds can be recreated, and even surpassed, by musicians who studied them and can render them live in concert. And, for certain works, as well as for audiences who may be a generation or two removed from the original incarnation, this may be a compelling idea. Ultimately, audiences, not academics, will tell us what the classics are.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to going to the Circle Theatre this weekend. When Mario Venzago conducts, I think the ISO is the hottest ticket in town. They're throwing a party for Wolfgang and I want to pay my respects: Happy Birthday, Mo!


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