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I was 12. The first two James Dean films -- "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause" -- had just come out. And entirely by accident, I was just about to hear and be blown away by Antal Dorati's recording of Aaron Copland's Third Symphony with the Minneapolis Symphony (as it was then called).

Those two concurrent events were somehow related in my head, and not just chronologically, either. But I didn't understand how they were related until a couple months ago (in other words, four decades later).

The connection, I now realize, was Leonard Rosenman and his musical score for both James Dean movies. It was Dean -- who took piano lessons from Rosenman -- who got him the gigs. Because of Rosenman, almost as much as the films' directors, Elia Kazan and Nicholas Ray, I would love movies for the rest of my life. And because of movies, I would love classical music all my life.

At the time, I thought I was watching James Dean show me how to have a knife fight and a chicken race with his tormentor Buzz. And how to hook up with Natalie Wood. And how to determine what to wear when late-teen alienation sets in (a red windbreaker). They were all short-lived lessons.

But it was instantly apparent to me the first time I heard Copland's Third Symphony that I was hearing, in pure, rigorously structured and far more elevated form, the musical vocabulary that I heard in those extraordinary Leonard Rosenman scores for James Dean movies. It was that first hearing of Copland's Third Symphony that instantly sent me headlong into 20th century classical music, as well as jazz, rock and R&B, to search out its great figures (Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Ives, Cowell) and lesser figures (Piston, Thomson, the whole Eastman-Rochester school, Alan Hovhaness, even though history has turned the latter into a major figure) and to read everything I could about them and their music.

I could no more have explained my ravenous aural appetite for music than I could have explained my love of movies. But 40 years later, it became clear to me that the great, hugely neglected figure Rosenman was a catalyst for both.

What brought home that revelation was an extraordinary new disc -- composer John Adams leading the London Sinfonietta in Rosenman's score for those first two James Dean movies, "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause" (Nonesuch 79402-2). It is part of an important and well-wrought clutch of Nonesuch recordings of film composers: Alex North, composer of the scores of "The Bad and the Beautiful," "Spartacus" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" (Nonesuch 79646-2), Georges Delerue, Francois Truffaut's kitschy composer for "Shoot the Piano Player," "Jules and Jim," "The Soft Skin," etc. (Nonesuch 79405-2) and the great modern Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, whose career composing for great Japanese masters Kurosawa, Teshigahara and Oshima was far more extraordinary and active than might otherwise be expected (Nonesuch 79404-2).

Until recently, the quasi-symphonic film composer was, by and large, a hireling neglected in the aesthetics of movies and music both. He was a cog in a machine -- important but replaceable like everyone else.

In classical music especially, the film composer was given short shrift like a wealthy but tasteless visitor from Miami. Only the film scores of the 20th century giants and almost-giants -- Prokofiev, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Thomson, Copland, Bernstein -- were considered of major consequence.

When Esa Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic recorded a magnificent recent disc of the Hitchcock film scores of Bernard Hermann, it was considered less of a general attitudinal change toward the film composer than a Los Angeles orchestra responding to its community's major industry.

But when a major composer/conductor like John Adams conducts the film music of film composer Leonard Rosenman as well as the protean and extraordinary Takemitsu, something entirely new has entered the world. And when, in his notes to his Rosenman disc, Adams calls the aggressively naive "Main Theme" from "East of Eden" "one of the most memorable melodies in all of American cinema," we are in an era of openly expressed reverence previously impossible in the classical world's accustomed hierarchy.

The rediscovery of the great symphonic film scores by serious conductors, composers and orchestras is symptomatic of something even larger -- a truly extraordinary reinvigoration of the American symphonic composer. The protracted crisis in American classical music has been good for it. Out of it has clearly come a total reassessment of ends and means and the compositional aesthetics that attend them.

What we're hearing from so many of these composers -- Aaron Jay Kernis, for instance, or John Corigliano (son of the former New York Philharmonic concertmaster) or Richard Danielpour -- is a kind of post-postmodernism or, to be more precise still, nostalgic modernism. This is music that longs for the modernism of great concert-hall masterpieces like Bloch's "Schelomo" or Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra" or Aaron Copland's Third Symphony or Olivier Messiaen's "Turangalila" Symphony. It is a public music that recognizes that a symphony orchestra is a very public institution. This isn't to say that their music can't express the most private joys and griefs or even that it can't, a la Stravinsky, express a vehemently non-expressive formalism. It's only to say that, one way or another, this is music that is completely accessible.

The extraordinary music of Christopher Rouse to be found on recent Telarc and RCA Red Seal recordings, for instance, is darkly, crashingly dissonant but is capable -- in the Trombone and Flute Concertos and "Gorgon" -- of moments that boil the blood and ignite ganglia in primal ways. This is music that has not only heard of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" but has heard of rock 'n' roll.

In fact, it has become a kind of wonderful cliche among middle-aged composers to proclaim rock roots. Aaron Jay Kernis, 37, gleefully referred to a piano glissando in one piece as his little homage to Jerry Lee Lewis. Richard Danielpour happily confides, "When I was an adolescent, I listened to an enormous amount of black popular music -- Aretha Franklin, James Brown."

Obviously, they know that their musical idiom is in crisis and needs street cred. But they also grew up in an era of glorious pluralism, in which many of the social snobberies of classical music culture no longer applied.

When a composer like John Adams so lovingly conducts the James Dean film scores of Leonard Rosenman, it is letting the century's real cultural life into classical culture.

One of the hidden masterworks in nostalgic modernism, in fact, is "Voices of Light" (Sony SK-62006) by 45-year-old Richard Einhorn, who says he was inspired to compose the oratorio by seeing Carl Dreyer's classic silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc." Einhorn is a low-level film composer who, in "Voices of Light," comes as close as anyone recently to that neo-primitive modernist masterwork by Carl Orff "Carmina Burana" (whose strophes and antistrophes you'd recognize from some TV commercials).

In one piece, Einhorn unites the minimalists, the great European mystics so increasingly loved in pre-millennial music (Gorecki, Kancheli, Part, Vasks, Tavener) and classic modernism.

The new breed of American nostalgic modernism in the concert hall even has its own George Antheil, its own bad-boy nose-thumber. In this case, it's 43-year-old Michael Daugherty, a brazen and riotous pop artist among classical composers who has concocted such works as the quartet pieces "Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover" and "Elvis Everywhere," a symphonic wind piece called "Desi," a piece for two pianos and percussion called "Lounge Lizards" and the wild and woolly Superman pieces "Metropolis Symphony" and "Bizarro." (Daugherty's "Metropolis Symphony" and "Bizarro" can be heard in brilliant performance by the Baltimore Symphony under David Zinman on Argo 422-103-2).

The giddy and altogether wonderful "Metropolis Symphony" ends with a "Red Cape Tango" that turns out to be nothing less than a tango made out of Berlioz and Liszt's favorite medieval chant, "Dies Irae."

At that moment, great modernist jokers like Antheil and Prokofiev are smiling down on the West's beleaguered symphony orchestras and concert halls and classical recording studios.

There's nothing like a crisis to bring out a reformation.

A highly selective discography of American Nostalgic Modernism:

John Corigliano: Concerto for Piano, Elegy, Tournaments, Fantasia on an Ostinato performed by pianist Barry Douglas (who appears with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on Oct. 25-26) and the St. Louis Symphony under Leonard Slatkin (RCA Red Seal 09026-68100-2); String Quartet performed by the Cleveland Quartet (Telarc CD-80415).

Richard Danielpour: Concerto for Orchestra and "Anima Mundi" performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony under David Zinman (SONY SK-62822); Concerto for Cello performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Zinman (SONY SK-66299); Metamorphosis for Piano and Orchestra performed by pianist Michael Boriskin and the Utah Symphony under conductor Joseph Silverstein (Harmonia Mundi USA-907124).

Michael Daugherty: Metropolis Symphony and "Bizarro" performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Zinman (Argo 452-103-2).

Richard Einhorn: "Voices of Light" performed by Anonymous 4, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Choir under Steven Mercurio (SONY SK-62006).

Aaron Jay Kernis: Second Symphony, Musica Celestis and Invisible Mosaic III performed by Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hugh Wolff (Argo 448-900-2); Symphony in Waves and String Quartet performed by New York Chamber Symphony under Gerard Schwarz and Lark Quartet (Argo 436-287-2), Colored Field and Still Movement With Hymn performed by the San Francisco Symphony (Argo CD-448-174).

Christopher Rouse: Trombone Concerto, Gorgon and Iscariot performed by trombonist Joseph Alessi and the Colorado Symphony conducted by Marin Alsop (RCA Red Seal 68410), Flute Concerto, Phaethon and Symphony No. 2 performed by flutist Carol Wincenc and the Houston Symphony under Christoph Eschenbach (Telarc 80452).

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