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Thursday, July 9, 2015

Concert Review: The Rightful Pumpkin King

Danny Elfman opens the Lincoln Center Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Danny Elfman in full flight.
Photo by Beatrize Creative © 2015 Lincoln Center Festival
The gulf between "serious" composers and those who write music for Hollywood films is an unfortunate and artificial one, enforced by a music community that refuses to consider the film score as a legitimate means of creative expression. This summer, the Lincoln Center Festival seeks to breach that gap with Danny Elfman: Music from the Films of Tim Burton, a career-spanning retrospective concert program that chronicles a creative partnership that has lasted for fifteen films and thirty years.

The summer crowd outside Avery Fisher Hall on Wednesday night was unique, with audience members in costume as the title characters in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and yes Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. (Batman was absent, he may have been working Times Square for the tourist crowd.) Beetlejuice posed with Edward. Pee-Wee wandered looking for his bicycle. And the audience settled in for two hours of Mr. Elfman's music, chosen and curated by the composer and veteran conductor John Mauceri.

Mr. Elfman first came to prominence in the 1980s as the leader of the Los Angeles based alt-rock band/art collective Oingo Boingo. In 1986, he accepted a commission to score Mr. Burton's first film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and never looked back. Since then, he has provided Mr. Burton's strange, often visionary films with quirky sounds, oddball orchestrations and occasional doses of lush romanticism steeped in the traditions of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Wagner. This program, assembled by Mr. Elfman and Mr. Mauceri has been on tour across America, and these concerts marked its long-awaited New York debut.

The program opened with music from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Mr. Mauceri leading the recently formed Philharmonia Orchestra of New York and a mixed chorus. The program proper opened with the stuttering, akimbo themes from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, combining jazz, syncopation and carnival-like themes with a sense of childish wonder appropriate to that character. Beetlejuice followed, starting with a mighty shout of "Day-O!" from the chorus that led into the brass-heavy themes and spooky chorus noises. This work which showed Mr. Elfman finding his feet in writing for a larger orchestra. Each selection was accompanied by short film clips and a look at Mr. Burton's sketches and conceptual drawings.

Other highlights of the first half included the Theremin-heavy score of Mars Attacks!, the Copland-esque American pastorale of Big Fish (the composer's first Academy Award nomination for a Tim Burton project) and finally a suite built from the scores of Batman and Batman Returns. It was these films that made Mr. Elfman a househould name. Mr. Mauceri put big-shoulder authority into the Batman music, and led the Vienna-style Joker's Waltz with parody and flair. All the violins rose from their seats on the first upward glissando. The knottier and more interesting Batman Returns music got shorter shrift, a shame as it is one of Mr. Elfman's best scores.

The lush romanticism of Edward Scissorhands provided Wagnerian oceans of sound and some of the most gorgeous music of the evening. This ultra-romantic featured an extended violin solo by  Sandy Cameron . Dressed in a concert costume reminiscent of Edward himself, Ms. Cameron played the pell-mell arpeggios amd quick figurations (in the film this accompanies Edward's brief career as a hairstylist) with a devil-may-care attitude and great technical skill. However she was eclipsed quickly by the glorious final scene, a rising figure for chorus and orchestra promising redemption for the sad, mutilated hero.

Mr. Elfman himself strolled onstage for the excerpts from The Nightmare Before Christmas, the first stop-motion featured produced by Mr. Burton and director Henry Selick. In a dark suit and red tie he sang the role of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town who gets it in his head to replace Santa Claus. The performance was all Mr. Elfman, growling, crooning and singing the sharp-angled vocal lines, using exaggerated movement of his long limbs and fingers to bring his spindly hero to life in numbers like "Poor Old Jack", "What's This?" and the graveyard soliloquy.

The final guest of the evening was boy treble John-Dominick Mignardi who sang lead in excerpts from Alice in Wonderland, a late and colorful collaboration between Mr. Elfman and Mr. Burton. Mr. Elfman returned for one more encore from the Nightmare, this time embodying the demonic Oogie Boogie Man in a style reminiscent of Cab Calloway risen from the grave and reincarnated as a singing burlap bag. As the orchestra's brass section grooved behind him he proclaimed that he was "ready to do his stuff." For the delerious audience, Mr. Elfman already had.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.