The American Youth Symphony’s Danny Elfman Project II Concert Review – Listening Live to Movie Music

What could be better than the combination of music and movies?  The American Youth Symphony’s Danny Elfman II Project explored the relationship between visual and aural narration on Sunday, November 24, 2013 at Royce Hall, in the University of California (Los Angeles).

Director, Alex Treger, and the AYS

The “Danny Elfman Project II” explored Elfman’s recent film music and highlighted his creative approach to scoring movies. All five of pieces were written in the last ten years and demonstrated Elfman’s ability to evoke story-specific moods. This free concert also included a pre-concert symposium and featured a benefit-dinner catered Barbrix Wine Bar, a local French bistro.

The American Youth Symphony is a unique Los Angeles institution. Since its founding in 1964, the AYS has trained over 2,000 young musicians.  Many of its alumni continue to become professional musicians and perform in a variety of ensembles, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. 

The orchestra is in its 49th season and continually provides innovative programming which helps foster a love of classical music among budding musicians. The “Danny Elfman Project II” marks the American Youth Symphony’s fifth year of movie music and second concert emphasizing Elfman’s work. Before embarking on the Danny Elfman Project I, in May of 2012, AYS performed a three-concert exploration of film music by Los Angeles composer, Jerry Goldsmith.

Alex Treger conducts the American Youth Symphony (courtesy of Holahan)

Before the concert officially began, The Film Music Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving movie music, and the AYS collaborated to host a pre-concert symposium, entitled “The Nuts and Bolts of Film Music.” Jon Burlingame, journalist and professor at the University of Southern California, moderated the discussion and shared insight on how music shapes the movie going experience. Burlingame discussed Elfman’s career with Jeff Bond, author of Danse Macabre, and Elfman’s agent, Richard Kraft. The pre-concert symposium also included a performance of Elfman’s “Overeager Overture,” which debuted at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006.

The program opened with a historical piece of film music, conducted by Alex Treger, AYS Director. Treger, is the former concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Fine Arts Division’s Artist in Residence at Pepperdine University.  This is his 16th season as AYS director.

He started the night with Lieutenant Kijé Suite, the music from a Russian film, The Czar Wants to Sleep, which debuted in 1934. The movie is based on Yur Tynyanov’s novel, Lieutenant Kijé.  This movie, also called "Poruchik Kizhe," is a Russian comedy set during the reign of  Paul I, Czar of all the Russias. Sergei Prokofiev’s score added color and levity to this black and white production.  The piece included a conversational interplay between instruments and a prominent cornet solo.  

After a brief intermission, David Newman, AYS guest conductor took the stage.  Newman is an AYS alumnus as well as a prominent film composer.  He has been deeply involved with the orchestra’s exploration of film music and conducted the “Elfman Project I” in 2012.

David Newman, AYS guest conductor

The orchestra premiered a suite from The Great and Powerful Oz with clips from the movie. This carefully timed marriage of audio and visual elements highlighted the skill and hard work the AYS puts into their concerts.

In traditional theatres, visual action and dialogue often eclipses the music; thus, this opportunity to hear a live orchestra play to a film sequence was unique. The balance of visual and audio enriched the story and added emotional depth.  This sensory experience established the importance of film music—even after the visual faded, the music continued with its own engaging narrative.

The orchestra followed this stellar opening piece with music from two Tim Burton movies, Big Fish (2003) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).  The suite from Big Fish used colorful country sounds, sweeping melodies, and abrupt changes of character to narrate the film. Big Fish was shot on location, in Alabama, and centers on a father’s love of exaggerated storytelling. Yet, this wild sense of imagination creates conflict between father and son. The orchestra captured the nuanced family drama as well as the more fantastical elements of the film.

AYS next performed “Alice’s Theme” from Alice in Wonderland (2010).  As Burlingame noted, this is Burton’s most commercially successful movie and explores a darker more fantastical side of the traditional Lewis Carroll tale.  The piece evoked a mysterious and slightly tense mood by utilizing tinkling percussion and a mixed choir.  The choir sung text adapted from Carroll’s novel and contributed to a slightly unsettling atmosphere.    

A suite from Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004) provided a change of mood and showcased Elfman’s  dramatic and suspenseful underscoring.  The scores to these films capture the essence of Spider-man’s coming of age and his role as a superhero.  While they are not heroic sounding in a militaristic sense, the music is triumphant and majestic.  In addition to the bold superhero sound, Elfman also contributes a hesitatingly delicate love theme.  The suite seamlessly transitioned to an energetic finale.   

Danny Elfman, prominent film music composer

The American Youth Symphony closed the concert with a selection of music from the movie, Milk (2008), performed live to a montage from the film.  This movie details the life of gay rights activist, Harvey Milk, and is one of Elfman’s lesser known scores. The suite included “Harvey’s Will,” “Politics is Theater,” “Give ‘Em Hope,” and “Postscript.”  While the suite was a unified piece of music, each movement had a distinct flavor.  The opening movement included jazzy overtones to complement the onscreen visuals. While “Harvey’s Will” sounded more thoughtful and featured a violin solo.  The suite ended with a cyclical sound and incorporated electronic instruments. Just as Milk left viewers with a strong sense of hope, the music provided an emotional and uplifting close to the concert.  

The Danny Elfman Project II provided a historical and multi-genre journey through Hollywood music and highlighted the talented young musicians in the American Youth Symphony

AYS in concert (courtesy of Holahan)

The American Youth Symphony is a hidden gem of the Los Angeles music scene, consistently providing free concerts with outstanding repertoire, for more information on their upcoming concerts visit their website.    

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