In Verizon Hall, a night at the . . . what?

The accompanies Pixar movie moments. Philadelphia Orchestra
The accompanies Pixar movie moments. Philadelphia Orchestra (Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: July 30, 2014

It used to be we would go to the orchestra to avoid commercialism. Now, audiences are paying good money to be pitched to. Playing excerpts from the scores of Pixar films on two nights in Verizon Hall last week, the Philadelphia Orchestra set aside its charge of letting the public in on something interesting, overlooked, or artistically important.

Instead, the ensemble played for two hours beneath a screen showing clips from Toy Story ( 1, 2 and 3), Monsters Inc., Cars ( 1 and 2) and other Pixar products. So many toys, cars, and action figures, so little meaning. It felt suspiciously like a trip to Target.

Still more franchise-building populates our orchestra's summer of artistic disconnect, including Gladiator and Star Trek (not to mention a show with Beatles impersonators). With this and other American ensembles turning into mighty morphing studio orchestras, it's worth considering whether there's a way to serve greater artistic ambitions while still making a buck.

Legitimate points can be made about the marriage of music and images, and this Wednesday's West Side Story at the Mann Center makes many of them. Other fertile fields await an orchestra looking for substance. The popular films of Hayao Miyazaki ( My Neighbor Totoro) would underline music's connection to the natural and spiritual worlds and cross over into another culture. Howard Shore's incredibly inventive score to the never-released Nothing Lasts Forever is getting talked about again, but not yet by orchestras.

The good news Friday night was that the Pixar show - attended by surprisingly few children - showed no serious disrespect to the orchestra itself. Led by associate conductor Cristian Macelaru and augmented by screaming trumpets, drums, guitars, piano, and sax (the excellent Andrew Neu), the orchestra's sound was fed through a mixing board and sent back out through speakers along with an occasional sound effect.

The dialogue track was completely eliminated, and producers stitched together a succession of scenes - often a chase, or a cue-orchestra, time-to-be-moved moment. They flickered by as a terse evening of coming attractions, yet seemed to take forever. The excerpt from Brave produced a neat trick of role reversal, compelling me to ask my 8-year-old: Is it over yet?

The most effective stretches lifted whole sequences in which the music did the talking in the first place. The scoring to the part in Up that follows a couple from courtship to old age isn't the most musically penetrating, but it at least made an authentic argument for how, through alchemy, music and film - when well-crafted and timed - can more than double the emotional charge.

These kinds of shows aren't shaped by the orchestras that host them but by forces that don't share the primary interest of the orchestral mission, which is, according to one school of thought, music. However, should a consortium of orchestras ever decide to develop a film-based show itself, there are a lot of scores worth sharing. The Nightmare Before Christmas and much of Danny Elfman, nearly anything by Nino Rota, Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold all stand at the gloriously vague intersection of art and commerce. Randy and Thomas Newman, composers of many of the Pixar show's scores, are effective as far as they go. But they are at their best when evoking the work of others - like that moment in Monsters Inc. when the heroic monster crew is walking toward the viewer in a slow-motion shimmer of Copland-esque brass, or the occasional pop of Carl W. Stalling.

Maybe the orchestra's artistic leadership even knows of other little-known music-centric films out there that deserve exposure. Guarding the door against the monsters of commercialism lurking on the other side is one of the things orchestras can do best.


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