While there are still two months left in 2016 I am pretty sure that I just saw the best concert of the year, and I didn’t see it coming. At the intermission I was musing to myself that I had already had the best experience of the year in half of the program. The Toronto Symphony played their hearts out today, conducted by Ted Sperling. I have it on good authority (a chat with freelancer Megan Hodge afterwards), that while this may have been more playing than expected it was very enjoyable for the players.
The title was ”Danny Elfman’s Music from the films of Tim Burton”. While we were watching a concert of live music, there are credits listing a good 30-40 people in this complex production. Music from fifteen different films were featured (seven numbers on either side of the intermission):
- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
- Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
- Sleepy Hollow
- Mars Attacks
- Big Fish
- Batman / Batman Returns
- Planet of the Apes
- Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride
- Dark Shadows
- Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
- Edward Scissorhands
- Alice in Wonderland
How busy is Elfman? He was performing at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend. So in other words, unfortunately he wasn’t in Toronto for these performances because he was part of an in-concert version of Nightmare before Christmas.
Our concert featured a brilliant new concept, or at least a concept that’s new to me, that will likely be imitated. Any composer seeking to improve understanding of their work couldn’t do better than what we saw, in some ways resembling one of those extra tracks you watch on a DVD after you’ve seen the movie. But it’s particularly powerful for a kind of greatest-hits compilation. It was most successful for those moments when everyone in the hall had already seen the film, or to put it more personally, it was totally amazing for those films I’ve seen.
Imagine this template for each film:
- Show the title of the film on a slide
- Begin playing the music for that film
- Show a little bit of the film
- Show Tim Burton’s conceptual drawings
- Show an abstract still slide, while we get lost in the music
Occasionally the drawings & the film-sample were reversed. Sometimes we saw more of the film than other times. But for most of these films, we were invited into a reverie, recalling the film while we listened to Elfman’s creations.
The credit in today’s program said “Music Composed & arranged by Danny Elfman”. Many of the films feature segments that sound quite different from the version in the film (I was going to call it “the original” but I’m not sure that would be accurate). I mention this because Elfman might be the Rodney Dangerfield of film music composers. Yes he’s been nominated but he’s never won an Academy Award, even though his sound is hugely influential, meaning that I could cite composers who have imitated Elfman, composers who have their little gold statuette even though they’re not as good. I say that with hesitation, only because I don’t want to criticize anyone. But Elfman surely deserves an Academy Award by now. But then again they regularly get the other awards wrong, so why should this category be any different?
The TSO seem to have noticed how popular film music has become. Not only are they programming films with live accompaniment (last year: Vertigo, Psycho and Back to the Future, while this season they’re presenting more than ever before), but they’re also giving us the music, as in today’s concert, and in an upcoming concert by Itzhak Perlman when we’ll hear some of his splendid cinematic serenades November 22nd.
This concert had a large number of children present, and a very young average age. Discussing this observation with my seat-mate (the lady who made the observation, not me, and a former TSO subscriber btw), she couldn’t help asking aloud “where will the opera or the TSO get their future subscribers?” And of course we were looking at the answer to her question, a good strategy for finding new young listeners, namely in such creative programming.
There’s so much I can say about this program (does liking perhaps means it triggers my gab reflex?), I’ll try not to go on too long.
Elfman’s vocabulary is hugely original, something I say again recalling that he hasn’t yet won an Oscar even though he’s been imitated.
I’m thinking about Elfman’s use of chorus in so many films, while appreciating the performance by Toronto’s Orpheus Choir today. The choral sounds, sometimes wordless (singing “loo loo loo”?), sometimes unintelligible text, put me in mind of earlier Symbolist uses of chorus. I think it begins with Debussy’s wordless chorus in Sirènes (1898), where the voices suggest not just the Sirens who threatened ships, but Nature itself (and listening to this I’m inclined to say “Herself”). Ravel jumps in with Daphnis et Chloe, the voices suggestive but ambiguous. Philip Glass did this too with his ensemble, in the last quarter of the 20th century. Elfman then picks up the thread.
Whether or not you get the chorus, Elfman also has chorale-like sounds from his orchestras, at times solemn, verging on something between religion and spirituality. The scenes in the last half-hour of Batman in that old church are a chilling suggestion of I’m not sure what, but it’s certainly not the old-fashioned religion or any kind of piety. Those chords that we hear there, or in the latter part of Beetlejuice when a kind of ritual is enacted bringing back the dead, are now standard equipment for the invocation of a certain solemnity, and by that I mean that many other composers imitate this kind of music.
I have to wonder, after seeing the audience burst into spontaneous applause at the slide announcing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, when is someone going to adapt this material as a musical? and when you look at the poster above –for the concert in Los Angeles this weekend–clearly these songs are well-loved. The cast includes Catherine O’Hara, but she’s there, not here. Yes Elfman displayed his melodic gift all night, but when we came to this one, there was such a richness on offer, that some songs were left out, or barely heard. Yes someone has to figure out how to present the visuals of the animated film. With actors? With puppets? I wish someone would finally do it.