Maestro for the masters

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Richard Henn leans in front of Gary Prettyman's portrait of Surfing Champion Kelly Slater. Henn composed a soaring, crowd-thrilling accompaniment, "Kelly's Piece." Pageant composer and avid surfer Henn was inspired by the classic 1964 movie poster for The Endless Summer. Jody Stump / TMT

Composer Richard Henn’s music moves Laguna’s famed motionless “living picture” show

By Jody Stump/Special to The Malibu Times

For 70 years, Laguna Beach has been wowing sold-out audiences with framed tableaus composed of citizens dressed up or painted nude and standing absolutely still. This is the “Pageant of the Masters,” Laguna’s famous annual recreation of art works in living form, produced by outfitting volunteers from every walk of life in elaborate costumes and makeup to duplicate a well-known painted form. “Living Pictures,” or tableaus vivants, was a popular form of trompe l’oeil-fool-the-eye-a bit of theater to amuse Renaissance royalty. In Laguna’s modern manifestation, the ancient craft has become a full-blown, multisensory fool-the-mind experience.

What used to be somber, static Old Master renditions with humans trapped in gilt frames has been transformed into a vivid kaleidoscope of sculpture and paintings. Today’s masterworks are loaded with good humor, and the images woven together by music that thrills or soothes as each picture’s theme inspires. In this collaboration, Malibu composer Richard Henn teams with the pageant’s director, Diane Challis Davy, bringing fresh air to tradition and letting the living art breathe.

Davy opened up the sightlines to include a frieze above the proscenium and she popped living sculptures in bushes on the hills. Henn took his cue from her choice of images saying “the music is servant to the art.” He has painted a musical score that dips and soars, from pianissimo to forte, in colors and styles as varied as the pageant’s tableaus. Together, they have a show that never stops although the actors never move-and the fully realized dimensionality of tightly interwoven arts keeps the audience emotionally engrossed from the first wistful notes of the overture.

Music is the mood-builder. A dusky horn solo over an unsettling Hopper portrait seems to tell of a date that’s going badly. When the full orchestra slides in slippery notes to a crescendo, a bright Currier and Ives sleigh feels as though it flies across the landscape amidst excited peals of laughter. Henn is an aural alchemist composing and conducting a living score that brings still images to life-every night. His vision is this, “If the pictures start moving when you look at them, I know I’m on the mark.”

He became involved with the pageant when someone asked his father-in-law to do it, and he was too busy. It was 25 years ago when Carmen Dragon suggested his talented son-in-law as a substitute, and a tradition was born. Henn is the show’s music director.

A lean, high-energy guy with deep laugh lines and the burnished glow of a life-long surfer, Henn grew up hanging ten at the beach by day and banging drums in a garage band by night. He had great timing, even then choosing to write upbeat tunes that rushed and curled like waves pounding into shore. The Beach Boys heard his band and liked its sound. The Beach Boys helped them make their first record as The Sunrays, which had a pair of Top 10 hits before the band scattered and Henn went to school for more formalized music training.

He wound up arranging music for Helen Reddy and Leon Russell and, today, composes for a wide variety of entertainment ventures, including TV and movies as well as the annual stint at the Pageant of the Masters.

He’s versatile, thoughtful and very talented, and I wondered whether surfing and music might somehow be connected in fueling his skills.

He still surfs, noting, “It’s the perfect antidote to writing music where you move very little. With surfing, you never stop moving-if you don’t want to drown. All time and space stops when you’re surfing. It’s the same thing with music. They both compound and compress the moment. You’re there with every note, every wave.” They “galvanize” that exact moment in time.

That’s what happens at the pageant. The energy from the powerful visuals combines with music to galvanize the night. If you can beg, borrow or cadge a ticket before the show closes August 30, you will enjoy an experience unlike any other in the world of art.