Oregon Symphony Orchestra: Nightmares before Christmas

OSO film series presents two simultaneous dramas: one on screen, one hidden in the orchestra 

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

In my comfy balcony seat in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I realized with a start that I was about to hear, for the first time ever, a real live orchestra performing the music of my favorite composer.

It was nine shopping days before Christmas, and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra was getting ready to perform Nightmare Before Christmas, synchronizing Danny Elfman’s score to the film, projected on a screen above the orchestra, same as OSO has been doing for years.

Oregon Symphony performed the live score to Tim Burton’s ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in December.

I looked around: just like at last fall’s Star Wars concert —pure bliss— the audience was a little younger than the OSO’s usual Mahler-loving crowd. A whole lot of folks my age and younger, some with parents or friends or kids, most wearing some kind of Nightmare bling.

And, as with Star Wars, the place was packed. They’d had to add a fourth show to accommodate the demand for this weird animated hybrid holiday show, this bizarre 25-year-old stop-motion musical (directed by Portlander Henry Selick, who animated Coraline) with Weillisch songs and score by a guy who used to breathe fire in a gonzo horror pop band.

But while this Nightmare was a dream come true for me and the rest of the audience, it was a lot scarier for the orchestra and its conductor. As we enjoyed the antics of Jack, Sally and the rest, the Oregon Symphony faced a test as tough as any of the movie’s characters.

I mention the fire breathing because it shows up in the damn movie, in Jack Skellington’s first appearance, an easter egg hinting at one of the movie’s layers of subtext; Nightmare is about a lot of things, but for Elfman it was a lot about being frustrated with his gonzo horror pop band and getting all excited about writing music for movies. That’s how he persuaded producer Burton to let him sing it: no one else, he claimed, could sing that role with the proper insight. Like most of the fights Elfman has picked over the years, he won this one.

But however necessary it was for the original score’s success, 25 years later that voice was causing trouble for the oldest orchestra west of the Mississippi. Unlike the other film scores the OSO has performed live to film (Star Wars & Star Trek, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean), Nightmare is a musical, with lots of singing, and that presents an unusual challenge: do you hire new singers?

Live singers could have joined the orchestra, like the trios Gabriel Kahane and Steve Hackman used when they were here, but that’s an expensive and risky move. Plenty of Nightmare fans are megafans (remember that bling?), and live singers would have had to make a lot of difficult decisions about how closely to mimic the original style—on top of learning a lot of tricky songs without the option of changing keys to accommodate the different singing ranges.

The obvious choice for the lead would have been Tony Vincent, who has on occasion sung Bowie and U2 songs with the OSO. I’m sure would have done a fine job, but I think a lot of us would have had a little trouble accepting him. At the very least, any such a deviation from what is (for many of us) an extremely familiar score would have been a little distracting. It might have been worth the risk, and maybe they’ll do that next time, but I for one was happy to hear Eflman’s voice booming out of the Schnitz sound system.

Because let’s be honest: who else can really sing these roles? Elfman is one of the finest singers of his generation (fight me, Simon LeBon groupies); Catherine O’Hara, who performs the voice of Sally, has that distinctively rough, pretty singing voice we all know from Christopher Guest’s best movie, A Mighty Wind; and it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Ken Page singing “Oogie Boogie’s Song.”

On the other hand, using the original vocal recordings presents myriad issues in timing, synchronization, volume, blend, etc. The beauty and the struggle of playing along with pre-recorded musical tracks is that the machine does not change, ever, even if you do. The original vocal tracks were recorded in tempo and in tune with some Hollywood orchestra on some Hollywood soundstage in the early ’90s, and the live orchestra thus “stands upon the edge of a knife,” if I may gratuitously quote Galadriel. Should the orchestra “stray but a little” from the vocal track they would fall out-of-sync and all would be lost.

The OSO went ahead with the latter option, performing the score live using the original singing tracks from 25 years ago, a Frankenstein farrago of competing musical sources, potentially as ruinous as Jack’s psychotic Christmas chimera. It’s not really quite as hard as I’ve made it sound, but it ain’t easy either. It’s always necessary to separate a film’s music track from its dialogue and sound effects tracks—that’s how you can have the orchestra playing Williamsy loveliness in Portland while Mark Hamill takes advice from a ghost—and it all has to be synchronized in real time by the conductor. That’s when there aren’t any pre-recorded music tracks to contend with. So Norman Huynh, OSO’s associate conductor and their go-to guy for these movie concerts, and the orchestra thus faced a special set of challenges.

Norman Huynh is the OSO’s Associate Conductor. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

An orchestra conductor normally has the written score on a podium so they can consult it while they wave their batons and cue entrances and emote and remind the orchestra of What We Talked About In Rehearsal Yesterday. It’s a tricky job; but, until we figure out how to link the brains of 75 musicians in real time, someone has to keep getting paid to do it. The big difference between normal conducting and film music conducting is that the conductor also has, next to the written score, a little screen showing the film.

On this little screen, a variety of visual cues (“streamers” in film score parlance) tell the conductor where the beat is, when a change is coming, that sort of thing. When the various musical and non-musical elements are strictly separated (as in Star Wars et al), there’s no problem synching score to film; the situation is forgiving enough that it’s impossible to stray too far from close enough. No knife edge there. But it gets tricky when the orchestra has to sync with a recording; even with the visual cues on the conductor’s screen, it’s all too easy for a few of those 75 musicians (or more than a few) to slip away from the beat ever-so-slightly.

And here’s where we come back to Danny Elfman’s voice from 25 years ago. Both his performance and his scoring made things a lot more difficult for the orchestra. The man was a working rock singer at the time, with a typically laissez-faire attitude to singing across the beat instead of on it. Then there’s his habit (well, really it’s orchestrator Steve Bartek’s habit) of including the vocal melodies in the instrumental score, scored in unison or octaves for soloists or whole sections (listen for it in “Jack’s Lament”). It’s the sort of thing opera composers don’t usually do but which you occasionally hear in Broadway musicals.

In Nightmare, Elfman and Bartek often give the melody to one group of instruments or another, right on the beat; over that, the solo vocal parts are more rhythmically slippery. It works when the orchestra stays put, but in this performance, the technological disconnect led to several iffy moments, when a few instruments would go off with the singing and suddenly be out of sync with the rest of the band.

Other times the slippage was more a matter of simple lag-time, a shifting of down-beat to up-beat, minute variances that no one but obsessives like myself would notice. It happened throughout the concert, persistently but never drastically; the worst offense was maybe a one-second divergence, quickly rectified. Watching Huynh handle this nightmarish challenge with such extraordinary grace gave me new appreciation for the conductor’s skill, which was such that none of this mattered to the audience. OSO took a chance here and it totally paid off. The operation was a success: the exquisite corpse drank the new wine, and the monsters won, just like in the movie.

Beyond the Big Screen

Elfman’s sound is right there in the same tragiheroic place as Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, and the other Russians we love hearing this orchestra play. Bernard Herrmann is the usual reference point for Elfman’s cinematic idiom, but he has a particular fondness for Shostakovich, and his sense of melody, harmony, and the emotional narrative possibilities of grand orchestral music all have that same sense of profound bitterness and ironic amusement. I’m not going to argue whether Elfman’s counterpoint skills are on par with Shosty’s (they’re not) or whether his music will end up having the same historical significance (it will). But he’s very definitely a part of that Russian orchestral tradition, and to my ears that alone makes his music a good fit for OSO.

Danny Elfman

The orchestra was completely up to the task, especially the reliably delicious winds and brass, who always get the most sugar from Elfman and Bartek. It was fun to watch this movie with a crowd, but I’d have been just as happy to sit there and listen to this wonderful orchestra play this wonderful music minus visuals all night long.

Is it too much to hope that we might hear OSO play something from Elfman’s Serenada Schizophrana? What about his new violin concerto, Eleven Eleven or one of the other concert works he’s gearing up for? I’d settle for another concert film: Alice in Wonderland or Edward Scissorhands would be just right, and would also give the group an excuse to work with the Oregon Chorale or Oregon Repertory Singers or Pacific Youth Choir or PSU Chamber Choir or Portland Symphonic Choir again.

Speaking of choirs singing with OSO…three of those choirs are singing with OSO next week, joining the band for their year-end closeout, Big Band and Beethoven. The concerts on December 30 and 31 feature the Ninth Symphony alongside Duke Ellington’s reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s much-reimagined Nutcracker Suite and music by “Charleston” composer James P. Johnson. And another film series show is coming our way in February, when OSO and guest conductor Justin Freer will perform Williams’s score for the third and best Harry Potter movie.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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