CEDAR FALLS -- Spirits of all types were in the air and on the big screen of the Great Hall of the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center last Saturday, as the wcfsymphony, led by its Music Director Jason Weinberger, performed “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,“ an animated film for which the orchestra provided live musical collaboration.
This work is one of the many products of an entity called Disney Concerts, itself the business arm of Disney Music Group — in turn the music division of the Walt Disney Co. As you may expect, this is one of many in a series of organized productions, deftly packaged for commercial use by a large variety of artistic entitities around the globe. The vast scope of these enterprises is truly stunning, as well as is the organization of the production — just pay for it, get the materials, plug it in and go. This particular film production is cleverly designed to draw in audiences for two holidays —Halloween and Christmas. We only missed the Thanksgiving turkey.
Welcome to multi-media on stage in the 21st century.
The orchestra collaborated with a film from 1993 directed by Tim Burton, a film director and artist noted for his dark horror and fantasy films, who wrote the original story. In brief, it tells the tale of Halloween Town, a fantasy location, and its Pumpkin King, Jack Skeleton, who discovers Christmas and attempts to abduct Santa and take over the holiday. The denizens of Halloween Town are ultimately unsuccessful, and both holidays end up coexisting happily ever after. The film is quite popular, and apparently has attained cult status.
The animation is absolutely riveting — a creative wonder. The film score is by Danny Elfman, a former singer and actor, now best known for his top-rated television and film scoring. I’d call the music contemporary, but accessible to a mass audience, and it too is wonderfully inventive. The normal orchestral forces were augmented — including two keyboards, two saxophones, two harps and an accordion. Who could ask for more?
As the film went by on the screen above the orchestra, conductor Weinberger was aided by a small screen attached to his music stand, featuring a light flash at each downbeat to aid precision with the film. In fact, precision was generally excellent, as was balance between orchestra and sound from the film (spoken text, vocal music, etc.), with the film sound only occasionally somewhat submerged by the orchestra.
Orchestra members tell me that the score was exceedingly tiring to play, not only for its difficulty but due to the necessity for non-stop attention —no breaks in the action! (There was an intermission, for the relief of all — the work required intense involvement by the audience as well.)
I found, as usual with multi-media productions, that it was difficult to closely follow visuals, plot and music alike. The plot and text won out, and I’m afraid attention to the score suffered somewhat (full disclosure — I generally like my music "straight, no chaser").
You could say, of course, that audiences have dealt with multi-media stage works for at least 400 years — they call it opera.
But the overall affect was wonderful, and I’m sure made a lasting impression on the many young people in the audience (not to mention their parents). I was left with two majorly positive impressions: First, the understanding of and respect for what’s being put out by this whole new arts industry, to join the existing cultural apparatus to cutting-edge technology and marketing. And secondly, I was reminded by one of my musical colleagues (thank you, Steph) that by attending productions such as these, children (along with their elders) can see visual productions and realize that real people are making the music to their movies, videos and television shows, and that they can make music ,too.
Thanks are due to our sponsors, who made Saturday evening’s concert possible: Dee and Dave Vandeventer, Iowa Public Radio and the McElroy Trust.
The symphony next appears in afternoon and evening concerts of the music of J.S. Bach on Dec. 8 at 4 and 7 p.m. in the Brown Derby Ballroom in downtown Waterloo. If you haven’t heard one of the concerts in this intimate hall, I urge you to do so, as you get a somewhat of a feel for what concert attendance was like in earlier times.
Thomas Tritle holds emeritus status at the School of Music of UNI, and is the former principal horn and program note writer for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.