Imagine Jack Skellington putting on a rock concert in Los Angeles. If you grew up watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, where that character originated, that might be the most exquisite Halloween gift conceivable.
Well kids...he did. This week's run of concerts at the Nokia Theatre, Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton, brought Jack (whose singing voice was performed by Elfman in the 1993 film) out of retirement for a raucous and unforgettable evening powered by a full orchestra and choir, which began with the wailing, sci-fi voice of a theremin and ended with Elfman incarnating Nightmare's Oogie Boogie.
The program ran breathlessly through the 25 years of cinematic collaboration between Burton and Elfman, a macabre match made in movie-lover heaven, from their very first project together (1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure) through last year's Frankenweenie. The members of the Hollywood Symphony Orchestra -- comprised of LA's premiere studio musicians, many of whom played on the original score recordings -- nailed Elfman's distinct personality and writing voice, flawlessly capturing the energy, disjointed humor and melancholic beauty of his rich body of work for Burton's films.
There wasn't a dull selection on the menu (though some, like the suites for Burton's more recent films, were certainly less iconic), and the flow moved the crowd of 7,000 through effectively alternating moods -- following mischievous insanity with gothic power and then heartbreaking tenderness. The former was characterized by the ironically ecclesiastical refrains of "day-o" sung by choir in the Beetlejuice segment, and the power found most pointedly in Elfman's indelible, thunderous anthem to Gotham's favorite son in a combined suite for Batman and Batman Returns.
The finest moments included the suite from Edward Scissorhands, a fan-favorite dripping with icy heartbreak and anchored by Elfman's Jewish folk melody for Edward (with a virtuosic interlude provided by a "gypsy band," led by violinist Sandy Cameron's incendiary fiddling); the choral ode to Alice in Wonderland, an infectious melody that rides a minor-third ostinato through Lewis Carroll's brain by way of Burton's; and (my personal favorite) the suite from Big Fish, which began with a bittersweet guitar/violin duet of the score's love theme and bubbled up into choral-backed, orchestral triumph.
The crowd went the wildest for Elfman's own appearance onstage, as he strutted out near the end to give voice to the skeletal "pumpkin king." The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of Elfman's greatest achievements (his songs and score are now perennial classics), and it was priceless to watch him gleefully personalize the performance with his own vocals. He hasn't sung publicly in the United States since the farewell concert of his old band, Oingo Boingo, on Halloween night in 1995, so his presence felt extra charged -- and his performance was electric.
Embodying his claymation alter-ego, he gestured broadly with his hands and body as he stretched his mouth to make his clever lyrics larger than life, and the crowd lapped up the end of every phrase. When he announced a special guest -- Catherine O'Hara, the voice of the film's ragdoll Sally, who recaptured the demure yearning of her original performance -- the experience became surreal. It was magic.
Under conductor John Mauceri's confident direction, the orchestra and Page L.A. Choir validated and reinforced the energy of the audience, which had a hybrid vibe somewhere between a traditional symphonic performance, a rock concert and a sporting event. Every aspect of the evening was well-planned and executed without a glitch, down to the effective use of accompanying visuals -- a mix of film montages and Burton's own hand-drawn doodles, which stepped out of the way for half of each suite to give the musicianship the spotlight.
It was an inspiring example of how to do a film music concert that should be forever imitated -- a thoughtfully curated and varied program honoring the important marriage the music has to images while also letting the music breathe and come to life on its own. Add the best musicians in L.A., all of them the leading specialists in film music performance, and you get an evening truly worthy of the reclusive pumpkin king.
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Tim Greiving gabs about film music for various publications, soundtrack record labels, and radio. Read more of his words on his website. Also follow him on Twitter:
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