Do you know the classic cliché that says, “I don’t know art but I know what I like”? That’s me attending an orchestra performance. I have never taken music (except things like ukelele or the recorder in school), I play no instruments, I can’t read sheet music. I’m not even well versed in Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and if truth be told, my favorite classical piece is Beethoven’s 5th, which dooms me to the dustbin of the pop-version of classical music, not “real” classical according to the experts. For me, it has to be accessible, and so my wife and I have tickets to the Canadian National Arts Centre orchestra “Pops” series.
It’s not a cheap investment, generally running about $65 a ticket for six shows for two people (I’ll let you do the math). Add in a babysitter, and it makes for six date night outings that we plan for and generally use as our formal outings for the year i.e. we don’t plan too many other ones. We found that if we didn’t subscribe, we wouldn’t bother getting individual tickets and would just forget about it; so we go since we have the tickets, and we have the tickets so that we’ll go.
Even though I enjoy the Pops events, I generally prefer faster tempo pieces, more lively pieces over long slow string sections. Honestly, those can literally put me to sleep and I feel like they are almost lullabies-for-adults. Yes, I know, some of them were written that way intentionally, but I want to close my eyes and let my mind drift with the music. I tend not to do that with the Pops series, it just holds my attention better. I mention this as you need to know where the following review comes from, as it is not your typical review perhaps of an orchestral performance. I won’t debate in detail, for instance, the conductor’s choices in the third movement, or how the violinists seemed a tad too slow on a refrain portion.
Last night was the first outing of the year, entitled “Hollywood: The Epics”. Let me first get out of the way that, as always, the NAC orchestra performed brilliantly. If something was off in anyone’s performance, I would have little chance of noticing, and didn’t find anything offputting anywhere. It’s always crystal-clear sound, fantastic acoustics, although perhaps a bit biased by the fact that we sit near the orchestra and in the centre (sixth row last night).
The program was designed with eight items in the first half and nine in the second, but they did an opening impromptu playing of the French national anthem (while standing) in honour of the citizens of France dealing with the tragedies of the day before. It was a nice tribute, although a bit odd when the very next item was “Hurray for Hollywood” (Whiting). The opening number was a harbinger for me. They do something a couple of times a year with the orchestra, which is bring in a large choir to sing with them…in this case, two large choirs. About 75-80 people in total. If you like choral music, good on you, mate. If they were singing clear words of well-known songs, like Christmas hymns or songs, I’d be okay with it; for this item, about the only words I could make out were in the refrain of “Hurray for Hollywood”. Their voices are beautiful, but for me, it is a lot like spices in cooking…throw too many in, might as well be salt. So the choir adds nothing for me. I’d prefer one or two singers at the front, if at all. Nothing memorable in the opening.
As an aside, the NAC has ramped up their bilingualism in recent years, and while the conductor Jack Everly is not bilingual, they have a co-host/animatrice named Manon St-Jules who does a great job giving some info about the pieces in french, and then throwing it back to Jack. I have heard a few grumblings from other patrons about it, mostly from those who don’t understand what she’s saying, but I love her little bits (partly as I can follow most of it until she hits warp speed) and she brings passion and zest to her little spiels. Jack, by contrast, is all about background and trivia about the pieces, who worked with whom, what else they did, or in last night’s case, how certain scenes were filmed that the music was attached to during production.
Overall, I think the evening was a fair to middling set of pieces, and I’ll run through the list quickly for the “also-ran” items:
- Main title from “Gone with the Wind” (Steiner) — interesting trivia about the King Kong set being repainted to look like Atlanta for the initial burning scene, but the song was sweeping but ho-hum;
- Suite from “Titanic” (James Horner) — there was a nice slow build, but it was way too long, and not very exciting (hmm, kind of like the remake version of the movie!);
- The Exodus song from “Exodus” (Gold) — meh, not sure how this fits into a “Pops” repertoire for anything other than the source, it was slow, boring and unremarkable;
- “How the West Was Won” (Newman and Darby) — The trivia was interesting (Cinerama) and almost as long as the piece;
- “It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, world” (Gold) — This was very short, with lyrics I don’t remember from the movie (but it’s been a long time since I saw it), and completely worthless for posterity; and,
- The Lord’s Prayer from “King of Kings” (Rozsa) — Classic, but unremarkable, even with (or because of?) the too large choir.
The second group includes those where it wasn’t particularly memorable, but where there were some interesting sub-elements:
- Overture from “Hawaii” (Bernstein) — Introduced as representing four themes in the movie, it had a lively middle and concluded with a decent set of elements combined to represent a big storm, kind of cool development;
- Prelude from “Ben Hur” remake (Rozsa) — I found the start quite strong, and seemed almost Asian interestingly enough, not sure why;
- Overture from “Around the World in Eighty Days” (Young) — This had a great violin section at the start, sounded reminiscent of the start of a hot air balloon ride (continuing the movie metaphor) but it was slow, and didn’t really progress from there;
- Main title from “Lawrence of Arabia” (Jarre) — The large drum work was good, and there was something going on in the middle with double bass or the trombone (as my wife identified) that was interesting, definitely not the flute or the piccolo, deeper and gave a different sound and feel to it, but it didn’t last long enough to be truly memorable; and,
- Lara’s Theme from “Dr. Zhivago” (Jarre) — So quintessentially the sound used to represent Russia, it’s hard to imagine anything else.
The last group includes the stand-outs of the evening, and in increasing order of quality:
- “El Cid” (Rozsa) — One of three pieces from Rozsa during the night (mostly Biblical style), and this one was in line with the other two except for one major element repeated throughout where the first violins play a small section that is then “answered” by the second violin section, almost like “dueling” or “arguing” violins… I don’t know how much of this is the original arrangement or a conductor’s choice, but it was really cool to see the conversation ripple across the stage as different elements answered the earlier pieces;
- Danse des Enfants from “Napoleon” (Honegger) — this piece was short, but completely different from the rest of the night…where the others were dark, ambitious, ominous, serious, this one was light, playful, and a strong focus on the flute and piccolo, almost like a palate cleanser after a heavy meal, quite delightful;
- Symphonic Suite from “The Magnificent Seven” (Bernstein) — This piece kicked off the second half of the night, and it is awesome — bold, definitive, a clear statement that resonates throughout the entire piece; and,
- Symphonic Suite from “The Lord of the Rings” (Howard Shore) — This piece soared, bringing about easy images of flying, sweeping mountains, battles and more. I haven’t even seen all of the movies, and I loved it, so not sure if I’m doomed to pablum pieces or not, but it was truly “epic” music to match the theme of the night, and the only truly remarkable piece from the first half.
Any credibility I could ever attempt to claim on music is completely lost with my choice of best piece for the evening. I mentioned that Jack Everly is self-described as “steeped in trivia” and he did a fabulous little bit of trivia showing the music that accompanied the 20th Century Fox logo and the extended version of the logo music to also play while the Cinema scope logo appeared. The reason he played them was that it was about how they defined a lifetime of the studio, and the logos still often appear accompanied by the same music. It was the rampart that called people’s attention to the fact that this was a 20th Century production about to follow.
George Lucas wanted the same “hallmark”, and John Williams gave it to him, as exemplified by the last piece of the night, the main title from “Star Wars”. Maybe it’s the geek in me, maybe it’s the fact that Empire Strikes Back was one of the first movies I ever saw on my own with friends, and even one of the first five I ever saw in a theatre (rather than on TV or at the Drive-In). But John Williams piece is, and will always be, one of the iconic moments of Star Wars. So many scenes throughout the series use pieces of that opening as they transition from one scene to another, whether it be from space to Tatooine, Cloud City to Dagobah, or space battles to Endor. It combines the harsh overlord style of the Empire with the softer peaceful areas of some planets with the rebel uprising, with just a dash of old swashbuckling music thrown in to keep it lively and not quite so serious. I loved it, and it was awesome hearing a professional orchestra play the notes that a generation lived and breathed as they realized what a combination of effects and music could do, the places it could take you unlike any effort previously.
The same goal that all “Epic” music should aspire to, and few in the ensemble tonight delivered. Overall, the three way split between yawn, interesting bits, and really engaging left the evening being rather ho hum. But as ho hum nights go, there are worse ways than listening to a fantastic orchestra do its bit.