Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton conducted by Ted Sperling with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and The Orpheus Choir of Toronto. Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, October 29.
Danny Elfman’s Music from the Films of Tim Burton provided a hoot of an afternoon of music. Strong musicianship from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Toronto under the helm of conductor Ted Sperling led for a great afternoon of music with film clips and art projected live on the auditorium’s screen.
Everyone knows a song by Danny Elfman, and the one I usually point out is the theme song to The Simpsons, which Elfman has rearranged into dozens of iterations over the 28 year history of the show. Danny Elfman’s true gold is in his film collaborations with the unparalleled creative genius Tim Burton. The next piece of music that people are usually familiar with of his is The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). The huge ovation when it began during the concert and the numerous costumes of Jack Skellington and Sally in the audience show the enduring love for this film and its music.
My personal favorite is The Corpse Bride (2005) which is essentially a musical. A highlight was Patricia Krueger on Victor’s Piano Solo. Those familiar with the film know this beautiful piano piece is interrupted when Emily surprises Victor for the first time. In this performance, we got to enjoy the full piece in all its glory. Krueger is a gem of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Through Elfman’s thick and grand music, his piano solos highlight significant moments. Krueger ensured that these were poignant and emotive. He does this again in Frankenweenie (2012).
These performances marked the debut for conductor Ted Sperling. His extensive work in music theatre includes Titanic (1997), the 2008 revival of South Pacific, and the Light in the Piazza (2005) for which he received a Tony and Drama Desk award for orchestration. He serves as the conductor of MasterVoices (formerly the Collegiate Chorale) of New York City. While you may not know the organization, you probably do know its founder, Robert Shaw, the famous conductor. Sperling also conducts the Westchester Philharmonic.
Roy Thomson Hall does very well for film screenings and serves as one of the main venues during the Toronto International Film Festival. While it works for screenings with orchestra, it doesn’t work quite well when you add a choir. The positioning of the screen relegates the choir to a hidden musical force in the loft above the orchestra. As a chorister, this is an unfortunate place to sing, and a seriously uninteresting visual for the poor choristers who can’t see the audience and are singing to the back of a massive screen panel. The Orpheus Choir did very well bringing life and energy to the choral highlights of Elfman’s work. Despite their hidden visual, their voices were heard and enjoyed.
Tim Burton himself selected the clips that were used throughout the performance. Original conceptual art from his personal workbooks were featured throughout. The masterful selection was expertly guided by Sperling. The thrilling scenes set to live music from these beloved films were incredibly pleasing. There is a massive oeuvre of Burton films (over 25) of which several were featured including Edward Scissorhands (1990), Mars Attacks (1996), Big Fish (2003), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Alice in Wonderland (2010), and Dark Shadows (2012).
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra was on fire and exceptionally strong. There are few breaks for any section during these challenging pieces. Extra musicians were on stage to make for a very large and beefy orchestra than normal. 6 horns, 5 trombones, and more percussion instruments than I’ve ever seen on stage at the TSO before. The extra brass were necessary as Danny Elfman’s bread and butter are the brass sections. His chords and energy build upwards with strong foundational sounds from the tuba, double basses, and trombones. This bass support gives the music energy and character while providing humour at the right times.
I’ve played a Wind Ensemble version of the music from The Nightmare Before Christmas and it was singularly the most stressful performance I’ve ever done in my life. I covered two percussion parts which required a dance between crash cymbals, triangle, suspended cymbals, wood blocks, whistle, bell tree, cow bell, mark tree, sleigh bells, flexatone, claves, and much more. This is the magic of Danny Elfman’s understanding of percussion – his music is full of whimsical elements that drive energy and enthusiasm. This is a lot of work for the players, but incredibly wonderful to listen to. The players work incredibly hard to make the work seem effortless and one standout was during Planet of the Apes (2000) when four percussion players pass along rhythms between congas, rim hits, tom toms, woodblocks and more. The sound would flow from one player to another working on different parts. The overall combination was seamless and impressive.
Elfman is a fan of descending triplets throughout his music which gives his music a natural movement and energy. Often, the brass foundation is contrasted with melodic lines from the higher winds. Mallet percussion feature a lot in Elfman’s music. Sperling notes that Elfman’s music is “ornate”. Yet it is such a pleasure to listen to without being taxing on the listener. His mastery as a composer has shaped a generation of film goers and continues to inspire us. As Sperling notes, even since the program was first performed in 2015, two more Burton films were made, one with music by Elfman, Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016).
Finally, the two boy sopranos on feature deserve the affection the audience gave them. Lucas Drube and Nicholas Mochocki of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company provided us with some magical solos. Their voices were clear and bright and helped shape the orchestrations. An extra bit of magic was the impromptu happy birthday sung by the full hall, orchestra, and Orpheus Choir to celebrate Nichola’s birthday. You just can’t make up fantastic whimsy like that.