W.S. Oh Myyyy

My wife and I were out to a classical music concert last night. Two weeks in a row for me! I am in danger of becoming a TOFF, and Mountains Beyond Mountains is on the cusp of becoming a culture blog. Don’t worry, friends! I am sure a post about pubes is not far down the line. We strive to keep things fresh, mixed grill style, so everyone gets what they want, even the pube crowd.

So anyway, we were off to our local Symphony Orchestra last night. Regular readers will recall that last week’s concert was a Rachmaninoff concerto and Holst’s “The Planets”. It’s part of what the programmers call the “Masterworks” series, which basically means they don’t fuck around. Last night’s concert was part of the “Pops” series, which is more mainstream and, well, “popular”. It was interesting to compare and contrast the different styles. At the Masterworks, the maestro comes out, maybe gives a little bow to the audience, and then hops up on the podium and raises the baton and off we go. Between movements there is no applause and definitely no talking and the maestro doesn’t turn around until he lowers his baton and the piece is over. The music speaks for itself. If anything, our maestro will address the crowd in a pre-concert lecture in the lobby, which is always informative and entertaining, but once the lights dim, it’s all business.

In contrast, the Pops series is quite different. First of all, we had a guest conductor. (I’m not sure if our Maestro feels the “pops” series is beneath him, or if he just is contracted to do so many concerts a month and this wasn’t one of them. I suppose I could go Google this information for you, loyal reader, but I’ve developed a case of the lazies, so I’ll leave that for another time. This guest conductor came out and pranced across the stage and leapt up to the podium with a little grin and a wave and the orchestra launched in the opening theme from “Star Wars”. I should mention that the night’s theme was “Sci Fi Spectacular” and one of the draws was that George Takei (Sulu from the original Star Trek) was going to be there and act as narrator. It was quite fun watching the crowds spill into the concert hall ahead of time. Peering over the balcony, my wife and I tried to determine which people were here as regular concert goers, and which were the sci-fi geeks. For some it was obvious, there were people actually wearing Star Trek uniforms, as if they were at a convention or something. Others were more difficult to peg: some wore subtle Star Trek brooches or earrings, I’m sure some were travelling incognito, and one guy was wearing a bright red sweater, and I am not sure if that was by design or sheer coincidence.

I expected George Takei to come out at the beginning, acting as emcee, but he was nowhere to be seen. After “Star Wars”. this guest conductor turned around and addressed the audience directly. Unheard of at a masterworks concert, but maybe quite normal and expected at a pops concert? I don’t go to enough of them to really know what’s what. He was quite affable, if a little cheesy, and he introduced the numbers as the orchestra played through a medley of TV sci-fi shows and some themes from E.T.

“Where’s the Star Trek guy?” my wife whispered to me.

I didn’t know. What were they waiting for? It was strange that George Takei was on all of the promotion material, billboards around town, and the front of the programs, and yet we were half-way through the first half and no sign of him. I almost Goldblumed, “Is there going to be any George Takei at this evening of George Takei?” Finally, the guest maestro announced, seemingly out of the blue, “Ladies and gentleman, Mr. George Takei!” and out he strutted, dressed in a tuxedo (which made me happy, I would have hated if they forced him to come out in a Star Trek tunic or something). I’m also glad he didn’t feel obligated to say his signature line, “Oh Myyyy!” although I did wonder if some of the hardcore scifi geeks were a little disappointed in the percentage of the night devoted to him. Mr. Takei was lovely. He told a number of stories from “the old days” and gave a brief history of the Star Trek franchise from his perspective. I almost wished that we had an evening with George Takei himself, like we did a few years ago with William Shatner, it was almost too much to have a full evening of symphonic music and also try to have stories, but it was well-balanced. I enjoyed both parts of it, and could have listened to more of George Takei’s stories, but it was a music concert first and foremost, so that’s what they gave us.

Listening to what was basically soundtrack music all evening really took me back to my childhood. Maybe I was a weird kid, but when my friends were listening to “cool” stuff like Def Leppard, Corey Hart and Glass Tiger, I was secretly buying soundtracks to my favourite movies. If you were to look at my cassette collection in elementary school and early junior high, you would see a Cyndi Lauper cassette and an Olivia Newton John cassette (my first two music purchases!) and a ton of soundtrack music, specifically action music soundtracks like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” “E.T.” and of course “Star Wars”. Later on, I would get into John Barry and Bernard Herrmann (and I was delighted that they included Herrmann’s score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in the second half of last night’s concert). Even later, I got into Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer, but John Williams remained and remains to be at the forefront. It was no surprise that almost half of the pieces played at the concert last night were by John Williams. Coupled with listening to “The Planets” last week, you could definitely see how Holst influenced John Williams’ style. He has such a knack to capture and portray emotion through music, you know exactly what you are supposed to be feeling when you hear it. Joy, fear, sadness, love, wonder. This sounds a little melodramatic, but that music has been fused into my bones, hardwired into my DNA and I knew every note and phrase of many of those pieces last night, even though I probably haven’t actually listened to them in 15 years. I feel like I should through my boxes of old CDs and stick some of these soundtracks on the iPod for future listening. But I probably won’t. I don’t need to hear them again. They are already there, a part of me, forever.

I know, “Neeeeerrrd!”

I wondered aloud to my wife at intermission whether there ever is much dialogue between a director and his/her composer. Does Spielberg say to Williams, “Okay, I want this scene to be really suspenseful” and he goes away and comes back with a complete score for that scene. Does Spielberg just say, “Cool. Record it.” or does he say “Um, actually that wasn’t what I was going for. I think it needs more strings, or it needs to be more choppy” or whatever. I’m probably choosing a bad example because of the track record between Williams and Spielberg is unmatched in modern cinema. These guys just seem to “get” each other. What what about other director/composer relationships?

I think I am about to answer my own question, because in the second half, the orchestra began with the first bit of Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, which famously opened Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”. I had read this story before, but it was good to have it confirmed from the podium. Kubrick was a weirdo, we can all agree on that, but we can also probably agree he was a genius. A lot of times when a rough cut of a film is put together, directors will use temporary musical tracks as place holders until the composer can complete the final score. Oftentimes, directors use classical music. (In fact, George Lucas used some of Holst’s “The Planets” as temp tracks for Star Wars). So it was no big deal when Stanley Kubrick used a bunch of classical music throughout the movie, and discussed what he wanted from Alex North, the film’s composer. Alex North wrote and recorded an entire film-length score for 2001 and it was synched up to the film and screened for Kubrick and the studio executives just weeks before the release date. Everyone seemed happy with the final product and Alex North arrived at the film’s premiere with his family anticipating one of his proudest moments as a composer.

Well, guess what? Funny thing,actually. Um, well, Stanley Kubrick decided at the last-minute that he actually preferred the temp track of classical music in the movie, and went and switched everything back before the premiere. Only thing is that he neglected to tell Alex North all this ahead of time, and so when the lights went down and the opening notes of Strauss’s famous piece blared through the speaks, Alex North was understandably all “What the fuck?” and that pretty much was the last time he and Kubrick ever talked, and definitely was the last time they ever did anything professionally together. Sure, Kubrick was a jerk, but you know what? That classical music works in that movie, and I can’t imagine anything but “The Blue Danube” waltz as I watch that scene where the spaceship docks at the space station.

So yeah, two different concerts, two difference experiences. I’m not sure I could say which I enjoyed more. I enjoyed both in different ways. I was reminded of my parents conundrum when they used to attend symphony concerts. They found the masterworks series a little on the “heavy” side, but they found the “pops” concerts a little too dumbed down for their liking. To be fair to them, I think there was much more of an “us vs. them” attitude between the two styles back then. With flex packs today, you can choose whatever concerts you want to see, but I don’t think that was even an option for my parents. I think what killed it for them was one night they went to a “pops” concert and all it was (for the first half) was a player piano on the stage. Some stooge came out and pushed the “start” button and the damn thing just started to play old-timey music (and maybe the orchestra was accompanying it but the way my Mom tells the story it was just the fucking piano on the stage all by itself) and the olds in the audience were singing along with the songs and my parents looked at each other and were like, “What the hell are we doing here?” and cancelled their subscription the following year.

Next week: Low brow! Preview: Maybe I’ll talk about attending my first NHL game in about 20 years.


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