The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented Disney-Pixar Ratatouille in Concert. February 18, 11:30 a.m. & 4 p.m., Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.
I completely forgot about Anton Ego, Ratatouille’s hale, ominous food critic who writes in a coffin-shaped office and generates fear in everyone. If only I had that much influence and power as a musical journalist. Unfortunately for Mr. Ego, there’s nothing negative to go after in this performance; it was a lovely afternoon for the family day weekend, listening and watching this delightful film.
Sarah Hicks helmed the concert — her TSO debut — and one of the rare moments that a woman is invited to conduct the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Ratatouille has a message about this as well, articulated by Collete, the female chef that keeps Gusteau’s afloat: “How many women do you see in this kitchen? Only me,” she says. “Why do you think that is? Because haute cuisine [or classical music] is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible to enter this world. Yet still, I’m here.”
Hicks is the first woman to hold a titled position at the Minnesota Orchestra as the Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall. She conducted Ratatouille as part of their season in November 2016. Before the TSO, her conducting was precise and lively but offset by the use of a click track in the musicians. Click tracks help with consistency, but often I wonder if their use by an orchestra betrays a lack of trust of the players of their conductor or the other way around; maybe both. Often, it is because there is a lack of rehearsal time, probably one rehearsal and a technical rehearsal to align with the screen action. In every live film concert, there are always timing issues and glitches, but nothing obvious or notable. The entire process was quite seamless.
During intermission, I overheard many conversations about the screen in front of Hicks’ podium with lines, dots, and colours that were flashing across. The screen allows Hicks to see what’s happening and provides cues for what corresponds to the score in front of her. On the screen is a timer, with numbers corresponding to the bar number and beat of the song being played. The lines and dots are part of the Newman system developed by Alfred Newman for 20th Century Fox. Dots indicate the start of a bar, solid green lines the preparation of an entry, solid yellow lines an oncoming tempo change, and solid red lines the end of a song. This is a lot of information for a conductor to take in visually on top of the aural information from the orchestra and film. All of this shows Hick’s ability to not only stay organized and focused, but expressive and musical as well.
Michael Giacchino’s score fits into the action of the movie so smoothly. There isn’t anything overly grand or spectacular throughout the music, but nothing really needs to be grand in this movie. There are two particular sets of instruments he uses throughout the music for effect. To evoke the French, the accordion does most of this work, aided by a solo clarinet or violin here or there. I don’t think an accordion has ever been played that much on stage at Roy Thomson Hall as through Ratatouille. The rats are almost always accompanied by a jazz band, which were in the back corner of the stage for this concert.
Giacchino is at his best when he gets into the meat of his favorite instruments — brass, which drive his most iconic themes. Examples include the main theme of the video game Medal of Honor, the main theme of the new Star Trek movies, the theme from the Incredibles, or more recently, The Imperial Suite from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The latter shows his comfort with jazz, which features in this movie as well. But big brass was missing throughout Ratatouille with a few exceptions, like when Collete and Linguini kiss, or the rats run away to the boats.
At the end of the movie, Ego has a grand speech: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating itself.” Well, Mr. Ego, the work of a critic is not always easy, but it is in this case, when an orchestra provides such a fun afternoon of music. Hopefully, in the grand scheme of things, this critic has found something meaningful.